The Pittsburgh Steelers front office, and head coach Mike Tomlin, should certainly be commended for their prudent action in picking up second-year cornerback Ross Cockrell after the Bills released him during the first round of cuts in the preseason.
Since he was acquired on the day of the final roster cuts by the Steelers—signed as a free agent after clearing waivers, mind you—he has merely gone on to play 481 snaps, or about 64 percent of the team’s total defensive snaps.
The fact that he has been able to come in and in just a couple of weeks become an integral part of a typically complex defense that was already in the process of expanding its coverage lexicon is a testament to his football intelligence, especially considering he hardly played at all as a rookie in Buffalo.
But that does not excuse when he plays poorly, and while he has had his share of bright spots this year—two interceptions for long returns, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and a handful of pass defenses—he has also unquestionably contributed to the team’s issues in the secondary this year.
After a dreadful collective performance by the secondary on Sunday against the Seahawks in which they surrendered over 11 yards per pass attempt and five touchdowns through the air, there has been a lot of finger pointing, with the vast majority of it in the direction of Antwon Blake, the most targeted cornerback in the league who has been playing through a thumb fracture.
But those in charge this week have been quick to put the spotlight on Cockrell as well. Tomlin did it in his post-game press conference, and again on Tuesday while discussing potential changes in the secondary. When asked about Blake’s issues tackling, he made sure to name drop his newest defensive back in that same discussion.
Defensive coordinator Keith Butler did the same thing yesterday. A reporter asked him if Blake’s tackling issues go beyond this season or if it could all be traced back to his issues dealing with injuries this year, he named Cockrell in his answer.
“I don’t think he wants to use his thumb as an excuse for not tackling”, he answered. “He needs to tackle better. We all need to tackle better. Ross Cockrell needs to tackle better, we need to tackle better in the secondary and up front too. It’s not just those guys. It’s a combination of all of us”.
Later, he was asked about what he was looking to see from Blake going forward as he tries to redeem himself from a very disappointing showing. His answer was simple. “I think he’s got to play better than he did last week” said Butler, before immediately following it up with “so does Ross”.
The comments from Tomlin and Butler after this game make clear that they do view the issue in the secondary as going beyond just one piece in the puzzle. Benching Blake will not be a magic elixir. Neither will putting Brandon Boykin in to the rotation. This is a collective issue that requires a collective solution, but it also requires individual improvement, from Blake, from Cockrell, and from everybody else as well.