He wasn’t in their plans to start the season—really, he wasn’t even on the roster a week prior—but second-year cornerback Ross Cockrell has become an integral part of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense since assuming the nickel back role in the second game of the season.
Cockrell has logged 337 snaps in the past seven games, largely on an upward trajectory when it comes to usage, where he has averaged roughly between 65-70 percent of the team’s snaps since then—which goes to show how much the Steelers are using the nickel under Keith Butler this year, joining the majority of the rest of the league.
Cockrell logged about two-thirds of the defensive snaps on Sunday against the Bengals and had a fairly active outing, presenting plenty of interesting tape to evaluate. The Steelers value his size at the outside corner spot, the only cornerback on the roster at least 6 feet tall, and they have obviously been relatively satisfied with his performance.
The first play worth noting is a 20-yard reception by A.J. Green late in the first quarter. Cockrell set on the outside receiver running a vertical, but he had the forethought to break off hos coverage as he saw Green settling into a zone past the flat defender but too shallow for the safety help over the top to pick up. His awareness actually limited the play to 20 yards.
Still, he was fortunate three plays later when Andy Dalton’s five-yard dig to Tyler Eifert was dropped for what should have been a third-down conversion. The quarterback and tight end paired well to keep the ball where the defender had no chance to make a play.
Late in the quarter, Cockrell set across from Marvin Jones along the boundary on the defensive right side, targeted on a nine route from just outside the red zone. The cornerback’s jam five yards from the line of scrimmage and subsequent disruption of Jones’ route pattern prevented the receiver from running underneath the ball.
Into the fourth quarter, the young receiver lined up again in one-on-one coverage on Eifert outside the numbers on a medium-length third down. With an in-breaking route, this time Cockrell attempted to play the ball aggressively, working through Eifert’s frame to attempt to snare the pass simultaneously in what was nearly a double-catch situation.
Later on the drive, on first and goal from the five, Cockrell did an excellent job of jamming Green with his inside arm against an outside stem to the left corner of the end zone. Because of his size, Cockrell may be the only corner on the roster the Steelers trust to jam against a receiver of Green’s size and class.
After being forced to scramble on the following play, Dalton fled to his left and again looked Green’s way in the back of the end zone. Cockrell began playing Green physically, nearing shoving him directly out of bounds. He could have fairly been flagged here, but the officials evidently determined that the pass was uncatchable.
Later in the final quarter, Dalton took a deep shot to Green on a desperation third-and-25 play. With Cockrell playing 15 yards off, he had enough recovery time to make up for his clunky turn, making a play on the ball as Green looked to bring it in. the ball was popped up and intercepted.
Of course, Cockrell ultimately gave up the game-winning touchdown to Green on the following drive, on third and two from the nine-yard line. Set at the line of scrimmage, Cockrell nonetheless played off after the snap, a schematic decision that Butler later conceded was in error, as Green was able to use his size and Cockrell’s passivity to easily gain the inside of the field, with help too slow to make a difference.
It seemed overall a relatively typical game for Cockrell, featuring some ups and downs, but in spite of the fact that he gave up the touchdown, I think he showed a lot of why the coaching staff has become comfortable with him logging so many snaps. And he’s still a very “arrow pointed up” player, as his head coach would say.