After a string of frustratingly inconsistent games from starting cornerback Cortez Allen, the Pittsburgh Steelers made the tough decision to demote him to sub-package duty three games ago against the Houston Texans.
The move seemed to make sense at the time. Replacing him in the starting lineup was Brice McCain, who’d spent his entire career up to that point with the team, and was familiar with their lineup, particularly their wide receivers.
It worked well enough in that game as the Steelers went on to win by a score of 30-23 after a late Texans touchdown made it closer than it was.
The following week, McCain had his struggles, including on the opening drive, but down the stretch, Allen was even worse. He wound up relinquishing two long touchdowns, having now given up five on the season.
Though the offense was humming along in astounding fashion for most of the game, the Indianapolis Colts offense was drawing too close for comfort for head coach Mike Tomlin, so he chose to bench Allen on the final drive, inserting Antwon Blake to play the outside corner spot in sub-packages. He responded by ending the drive with and interception in the end zone.
He was rewarded for his efforts, having practiced during the week in the sub-package ahead of Allen, and he wound up serving as the third cornerback on Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens, logging 35 snaps, while Allen remained on the sideline throughout.
The majority of those snaps came in the second half, once the Steelers had built up a two-possession lead. Though I didn’t take an explicit count, his snap total from the first half appeared to be in the single digits.
Blake was targeted twice late in the first half, first on a deep ball in the end zone against Torrey Smith. McCain had been beaten by Smith for a long score early on the game on a similar play. This ball had a chance, but it would have required supreme effort from the wide receiver. The second target to Smith also fell incomplete with Blake in good coverage.
He was beaten for a third-down conversion on the Ravens’ opening drive of the second half on a corner route for 13 yards. However, he ended that drive with excellent, tight coverage that forced Joe Flacco to flee the pocket, and he was eventually chased down for a sack on third down.
Later in the game, he broke up another deep ball into the end zone, as well as a short pass with a hard hit. He also drew a pass interference call from the three-yard line on second and goal that saved, though only slightly delayed, an eventual touchdown.
As was the case last week, he gave up a couple of receptions in garbage time when the Steelers’ only goal was to run out the clock, including an 18-yarder with the secondary lined up 20 yards off the ball with two seconds remaining.
While his performance was certainly not flawless, he played well when given a chance, and I have to presume he will get at least another week playing in the sub-package.