The Pittsburgh Steelers secondary was being held together by a wing and a prayer for most of the season, and, at least as far as the coaching staff was concerned, it was going well enough up through the bye week that they decided to leave well enough alone.
After the avalanche of big plays, including five touchdowns, that saw the Seahawks put up 39 points on the unit, the most they’ve given up this year, however, the plan to make some tweaks to the secondary was finally revisited, and this past Sunday, we saw veteran slot cornerback Brandon Boykin rotated in liberally.
As a result of Boykin’s playing time, we saw a general decrease in snaps for the Steelers’ two younger, less experienced cornerbacks, at least until William Gay was knocked out of the game with a concussion for the last 12 snaps, which inflated their total for a bit.
While Antwon Blake served at the left outside cornerback in the base defense, as we well know by now, the Steelers do not often rely upon their base defense. And for most of the game, when in the nickel, the Steelers used Blake in the slot and Ross Cockrell outside.
As a result, Blake saw a season-low 32 defensive snaps, which was a little over half of the team’s defensive snaps, previously, he had hardly missed a snap during games unless due to injury, with a brief rotational experiment in Week Two being an exception.
Meanwhile, Cockrell managed to log 43 snaps, but likely would have played a bit less than that were Gay not knocked out of the game. That equated to a little under 75 percent of the team’s snaps, which is probably around the percent of snaps that he plays per game, depending on the circumstances.
Part of the reason that the Steelers chose now to make this change was to alleviate some of the pressure from the shoulders of Blake and Cockrell, who this season have been asked to play roles that they never had before.
Blake, for example, had never started a game as a base cornerback prior to this season, and now has started 12 straight games. He logged only about 200 or so snaps in 2014 late in the year as a nickel outside cornerback, which was a necessity due to injury.
As for Cockrell, who stepped in a play a huge role as a nickel outside corner from Week Two on after just a couple of weeks with the team, he is just a second-year cornerback who barely cracked double-digit defensive snaps in his rookie year with the Bills. The fact that he has even played this year seems historically unlikely for this defense.
As for Keith Butler, his comments yesterday reaffirmed that the cornerback rotation will continue, saying, “I think it helps us”. He added, “our guys were getting worn out this time of year…those guys [Blake and Cockrell] have never played that many snaps in a season. It was starting to wear on them, I think, both mentally and physically”.
The solution, lighten their snap count. The defense didn’t log a ton of snaps to begin with against the Colts, so I expect that we could see an even wider disparity in percentages in a game that includes more defensive plays. Boykin, by the way, played 40 snaps, or just under 70 percent of the total.