It’s almost hard to imagine a Pittsburgh Steelers defense over the past few years forcing three turnovers in the same game. It’s even more curious that those three turnovers that the defense produced on Sunday night against the Cincinnati Bengals came from two largely unheralded players who began the season fourth and fifth on the cornerback depth chart.
Had it not been for injuries to Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen, it’s likely that Brice McCain and Antwon Blake would have spent the majority of their time toiling away on special teams and on the sidelines during game day, but both of them have become integral, featured players on a defense that has Super Bowl aspirations—aspirations that, admittedly, are largely tied to the team’s offensive success.
Against the Andy Dalton-led Bengals, McCain was twice able to pick off passes intended for star receiver A.J. Green. The first ball was a rushed one under duress on a route on which Green stopped running. The second came on an overthrow down the field off the Pro Bowler’s hands.
But it was Blake’s forced fumble, stripped out of Green’s hands late in the fourth quarter, that was perhaps the most significant turning point of all. There were four minutes remaining at the time, and Green’s reception would have put the Bengals on the outskirts of field goal range in a 20-17 game.
Instead, Blake ripped the ball out of Green’s hands, recovered it himself, and the offense secured the win with a 63-yard touchdown pass on third down to earn the crown of champions of the AFC North for the first time in four seasons.
Make no mistake—neither McCain nor Blake have been excellent this season, by any means. They have both certainly had their moments, but they have also looked awful on more than one occasion. But they have gained significant playing time, and significant confidence, heading into the postseason, which is crucial.
With Allen already on injured reserve and Taylor not exactly seeming as though he’s preparing to supplant either of these young players who now seem to be in front of him, even without his injuries, it’s up to McCain, Blake, and, of course, William Gay, to hold down the fort in the secondary, to do just enough to allow Ben Roethlisberger and the offense to win games.
Blake has been logging a number of snaps in recent weeks as the outside receiver in the nickel defense, with about half of his 275 on the season coming in the last three games. While he has given up some touchdowns—two in Atlanta—however, he has also prevented others, including a key late interception against the Colts in the end zone. He is also strong in run support and a big hitter, despite his size.
Despite starting nine games, McCain’s 25 tackles pale in comparison to Blake’s 42, who seeks contact. But McCain has three interceptions on the year, including a pick six, and really helped stabilize the secondary during Taylor’s and Allen’s struggles.
They were both critical in securing the division title and getting into the postseason. Now how far can the Steelers go with them?