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Matchup of the Game: Brown challenges Bengals' No. 2 pass set


Dre Kirkpatrick had this pick in Pittsburgh last year.


During the last Super Bowl week in Houston, Brown ran a go route to an appointment on Radio Row on his way to the Hall of Fame when he saw a Bengals pullover in the maze of humanity. He stopped and asked, "Are you a coach?" Brown, who apparently has as little use for small talk as dropped passes, spun on his heel when the answer was no.

When the pullover waited for Brown to run the come-back route moments later, it buttonholed him and asked, "What if I was a coach?" Brown kept walking and said, 'I'd pick your brain."

It's been easy pickings for him this year, which has become the norm in a brilliant career. He far and away leads the NFL in receiving with 48 catches and 700 yards after six games, 196 more yards than the Bengals' A.J. Green and six more catches than Larry Fitzgerald. He has 74 targets, more than twice the next Steelers wide receiver (Martavis Bryant's 34) and he's coming off one of those inexplicably easy game breakers last week in Kansas City where everyone in the building knows he's going to get the ball and he's running open down the field.

The Chiefs had the 51-yard pass in their hands, but when they let it bounce through, there's no one in the game that takes advantage like Brown and it's just that kind of big play the Bengals have to prevent him from making Sunday (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) in his summit with the NFL's second-best pass defense. They better play as ranked because Bengals Hall-of-Fame receiver A.J. Green is going against the NFL's top-ranked pass defense.

"His ability to work so well with the quarterback," says Kirkpatrick of what makes Brown gold. "They've been doing this so long it seems like they're one out there sometimes. I feel like that's why he wins lot. The quarterback gives him the ball right at the point of his break."

Kirkpatrick should know. He knows Brown better probably than any Bengal. He was a little uneasy becoming friends with him because of the heated rivalry, but he still invited Brown to his youth camp at his high school in Gadsen, Ala.

"When I went public when I had my camp I didn't know how the guys would take it," Kirkpatrick said. "The rivalry is thick. It's thick. A lot of guys don't feel about it the way I feel about it. A lot of guys take it really hard. But he's my friend. And being my friend, I'm going to play as hard as I can. That doesn't give him any passes.  It just makes it a little bit more."


William Jackson (22) had a pick six last month in Green Bay.

With the other Bengals starting cornerback Adam Jones (back) limited in Wednesday's practice, Kirkpatrick's big-game demeanor that earned him a big contract in the offseason is at a premium. Red-shirt rookie William Jackson very well could go from easing in against three of the league's more struggling receiver units (Baltimore, Cleveland, Buffalo) to one of the best in what is emerging as Cincinnati's new-look coverage group with Dennard in the slot.

Jackson has been typically rookie. Very good at times, but he leads the team with six penalties. Dennard is a different player than he was last year when in his first game back from shoulder surgery the Steelers' Sammie Coates beat him for passes of 44 and 53 yards. He'll have to be because even though Coates is gone, the Steelers have wide receivers who would be No. 1s on the teams the Bengals have played.

The No. 1 lesson from last year's Steelers' sweep of the Bengals and it really is a gentle reminder more than anything is that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is lethal with all sorts of guys, whether it is Jesse James or Bonnie and Clyde. The Bengals held Brown to 39 yards on four catches in the first game Pittsburgh wore them down with 74 plays and three catches for 58 yards in the second game the Bengals allowed them just one TD with 7:29 left in the game and five field goals.

"They've got other guys that can hurt you," says Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. "They've got 10 (Bryant) and 19 (rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster) and 17 (Eli Rogers). They're all good receivers. 26 (running back Le'Veon Bell) is a good receiver out of the backfield, so you try to plan for a couple different things. But obviously he's their main targeted guy, so we understand that."


Darqueze Dennard (21) is healthier than the last trip to Heinz.

But the Bengals were close last year (24-16 and 24-20) only because they didn't let Brown go crazy. In fact, in the seven games under Guenther they've kept him relatively in check. He does average six catches and 85 yards, which is, oddly enough, his career average. He does have three 100-yard games, but he's got only two catches longer than 40 yards and one touchdown in those seven games. The way Kirkpatrick sees it, the biggest keys are the guys playing behind them in the last line of defense and safeties George Iloka and Shawn Williams, as well as Reggie Nelson before them, have played the Steelers well.

Cincinnati Bengals host practice at Paul Brown Stadium Practice Fields 10/16/2017

"That's the only number I like. I like that one," says Kirkpatrick, an anti-numbers guy who knows what Brown can do to a game. "I tip my hat off to my safeties because as a corner I don't feel like you can slow down those guys without your safeties playing great. He's good, man. You can man up on him all day and at some point he's going to beat you. You've got to have somebody like George, Shawn that plays the position pretty well."

But it's that one play …

"You just have to manage those guys. You can't let those guys go crazy with the big plays," Kirkpatrick says. "You just have to let them chip off if they're going to beat us. Where they're dangerous is when they're making the big plays -- 20-yard plays. Ben's throwing the ball for a 70-yard touchdown. Things like that. That's when teams find themselves in trouble. If we can get them in good field position on third down, we have a great chance of winning this game."

And they'll put Brown anywhere. Nine of his 74 catches and one of his two touchdowns have come in the slot, where he lines up 15 percent of the time according to

"Whatever the hell they want. Whatever they want," says Kirkpatrick when asked where he thinks Brown is going to be Sunday. "I don't think like Quez is new. I just think he's got a starting role now. That's pretty much the only new thing. He's faced these guys. He knows what to expect. Will has seen it. He didn't play last year, but he's seen it. It's definitely going to be a lot different than seeing it and actually playing in it. He went with us, but actually being on the field is so much different."

In a grinding, grueling series that always seems to tilt on field position instead of last-minute heroics (OK, Ben in 2015 and Reggie Nelson in 2012), they can't let Brown have the final say.

"You have to play great field position ball from a team standpoint. We can't turn the ball over and give them short fields," Guenther says. " A couple of the touchdowns we gave up last year we were just off on the coverage – simple little things that we should have been in great position to make a play. I think the second ballgame they scored one and kicked five field goals so that was a big field position game where were holding them and they were kicking long field goals. They were chipping away at the lead. It's a division game and grind out deal and we know that."


Marvin Lewis Community Fund hosts Hometown Huddle at the Life Learning Center 10/17/2017

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