When it comes to cornerback Brandon Boykin, the Pittsburgh Steelers fan base has seemingly eager anticipated his debut far more than the coaching staff. After the front office acquired him for a conditional fifth-round draft pick during training camp, he has been unable to crack the starting nickel package.
Boykin did not log a snap during the season opener in New England, one of just three defensive players that were active out of 23 who did not play on defense. After the game, he did move into the slot early in the practice week, but a groin injury set him back, and was passed for the position by Ross Cockrell.
Cockrell had been with the team an even shorter amount of time, but the fact that he was able to practice and Boykin was limited for much of the week, combined with his capacity to be a quick study, led to seeing him log 39 snaps, all as the left corner in the nickel.
But Boykin did play during the game, though not as you would expect. He got two series during the game against the 49ers, totaling 11 snaps, two of which were penalties, but he was the base right outside cornerback, replacing Antwon Blake.
More specifically, he was on the field for the three-play drive in the second quarter beginning with 5:45 remaining that ended with a fumble recovery, and then on an eight-play touchdown drive that began at the very end of the third quarter.
Interestingly, of Boykin’s 11 snaps, the first eight all came in the base defense, reverting to the nickel only with the 49ers facing a third and goal at the six—and then 11, after a delay of game. In those snaps, it was Cockrell, and not Blake, who came on the field, so Boykin and Blake never saw the field together.
As to his performance, Boykin was targeted three times during his nine non-penalty snaps, giving up two receptions of 18 and 14 yards, respectively, the latter for a touchdown on fourth and goal.
In his defense, however, I contend that Anquan Boldin, on the receiving end of the latter pass, got away with some illegal contact at the top of his stem as he broke to the corner in the end zone, which contributed to the cornerback slipping.
On the other hand, it is also true that he slipped on the previous play, which left his coverage open in the back of the end zone, making it all the more fortunate that Bud Dupree got off the edge in a hurry to record a sack.
On the play before that, however, Boykin did a beautiful job covering Torrey Smith through the end zone and then finding and making a play on the ball, batting it down for a pass defensed.
On his other reception given up, he was slow to break on Smith’s inside slant at the top of his route, but recovered well to make a strong tackle, which is becoming undervalued on this defense.
Should he remain healthy and practice fully this week, I would expect him to log more time, either in the slot or in a rotation with Blake.