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Brandon Boykin’s Tackling Will Be Key If Steelers Use Much Traditional Nickel

On the final injury report listed prior to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ next game, cornerback Cortez Allen was listed as questionable after going through two days of limited participation in practice, while Brandon Boykin was listed as probable after he managed to come back to be a full participant in practice for the final tune up before the home opener.

Reading between the lines, it seems as though Allen will be taking a seat for this game, as the Steelers, including their website, have also been talking up the recently signed Ross Cockrell, in spite of the fact that he has only limited exposure to the playbook. If he indeed dresses, it will most likely only be for special teams purposes.

Antwon Blake will no doubt be the starter again, as he also started the home opener despite serving as the nickel corner throughout the offseason. The change was made just prior to the start of the regular season, although the early returns were quite poor in the opener.

Boykin should, as a result, see his first playing time of the year on defense after he was limited only to special teams work in the opening game against the Patriots, a fact about which he had no explanation, expressing his lack of understanding as to why he did not play on defense.

Boykin was lined up as the slot cornerback with the starting unit in practice on Monday before he battled a groin injury mid-week that got his name on the injury report, but he seems to have overcome the minor ailment. Perhaps he was held out as a precaution, especially in light of Allen also battling an injury.

As previously discussed, however, his playing time may well be limited by the Steelers’ opponent, the 49ers, who have over recent years, and through a coaching regime change—in-house though it was—favored a run-heavy offense that employs multiple tight end sets, as well as a lead blocker out of the backfield.

San Francisco unveiled its new rushing attack with Carlos Hyde early this week, which spawned rave reviews, so the Steelers will have their hands full containing the run even in their heaviest packages with their base defense.

Pittsburgh’s focus will be to stop the run and make the 49ers offensive a one-dimensional passing attack, as has long been the strategy under both old defensive coordinator and new. But San Francisco in particular figures to struggle if forced to pass, as long as the edges are contained.

Boykin is a solid tackler, perhaps the best tackler in the cornerback room in terms of whiff percentage and the ability to make plays in the open field, so he would still figure to give the Steelers their best option as the nickel defender even if the 49ers continue to run the ball against their smaller package—as most offenses figured out last season. Perhaps this trade acquisition can change that.

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