The Pittsburgh Steelers have had not had a real good whipping boy since the heyday of William Gay in 2009, and Antwon Blake has come close this season to bearing that level of animosity. And to be truthful, much of it had been merited based on his play. But it’s also true that he has improved over the course of the season. And he has made some plays.
Blake’s performance against the Bengals on Sunday was an improvement—not flawless, but pretty good, all things considered. An end zone interception didn’t hurt matters, but he spent a lot of the game covering A.J. Green and Cincinnati scored a season-low 16 points.
The first play of the game was a fairly typical result for Blake against the Bengals, as the left outside cornerback lining up against bigger targets like Green and Marvin Jones. Andy Dalton regularly took advantage of his need to play off to hit short passes for medium gains, but the 5’9” corner defended them well.
The first pass of the game was a short pass to Jones with Blake set eight yards off. He broke off the throw and met Jones six yards out with a strong hit, wrapping by the waist and lifting up the receiver as he tried to advance forward, the safety coming in late to expedite his journey to the grass.
The Bengals threw a bunch formation at the Steelers off the left side later in the drive, with Blake playing off on what he diagnosed as a screen pass with two blockers set in front of Mohamed Sanu. Blake broke on the pass as soon as Dalton turned to his right, beating Green and wrapping up Sanu, to be joined by a trio of defenders for an old-fashioned gang tackle.
Jumping ahead to late in the first half, there is yet another of several examples of the Bengals taking what they can get with Blake going against their tall wide receivers. While he is clearly at a size disadvantage, he is better off playing off the line and coming up to the play rather than being outmuscled at the line to be beaten deep.
He makes the most of his assets to bring down players bigger than him, even if it doesn’t always look well-coordinated. He is effective as long as he stays coordinated and his footwork holds up, which is not always the case, as on the second play of the third quarter as he slips out of his break to allow a five-yard first-down pass to Green.
Midway through the quarter, Blake was beaten down the field for his worst rep of the game, a third and two shot down the right sideline to Green, who used his size and speed to simply beat him down the field, though it seems the cornerback felt he pushed off.
Of course, later in the game, Blake recorded his second interception of the season, picking off Dalton on a lofted pass into the end zone, targeting Jones toward the back pylon. Set up from a bunch look, Blake was able to sit back and watch the play develop, enabling him to jump the route and nicely pluck the ball out of the air.
This time he showed instinct and urgency in his return, bringing the ball out to the 40-yard line until he inadvertently stepped out of bounds after hurdling a defender.
Late in the game, after the Bengals had taken the lead and the Steelers turned the ball over yet again, Blake was the first to make the run stop in the hopes of giving the offense one more chance to win the game. playing at the line with two tight ends set on his side, he was able to keep clean against his blocker on the edge to scrape off and bring the runner down after a yard.
Thought he did give up one deep shot, and his size enables taller receivers to get a free pass underneath, of which he Bengals are fully stocked, Blake had an overall solid game, and has generally been on an upward trajectory for most of the year. It’s understandable why the coaching staff has him out there, even if most don’t like it.