Training camp is now upon us, in case you have failed to take notice. The Pittsburgh Steelers reported to Latrobe on July 28, and began practicing the following day in preparation for their first preseason game on August 12, and eventually, for the 2016 regular season in April.
Every NFL season is like an investigation of sorts, with the offseason and preseason serving as the fact-finding portion, gathering the questions that are most prudent to ask in order to understand the story of the team in the current season. And it is in training camp that we really begin to start finding the answers to those questions.
You can rest assured that we have the questions, and we will be monitoring the developments in training camp and the preseason looking for the answers as we look to evaluate the makeup of the Steelers as they head into a regular season in which they are among the favorites to win the Super Bowl.
Question: Can the Steelers win on defense with Ross Cockrell as a starting cornerback?
Around this time last season, Ross Cockrell was a member of the Bills. You would have to fast forward another month yet and more until you finally find him on the Steelers’ roster. And yet he ended up playing about 60 percent of the team’s snaps in spite of the fact that he never started as a 3-4 defense cornerback.
This season, his first full year with the team, it seems he might end up a sure bet to start for the Steelers opposite William Gay as second-year novice Senquez Golson competes in the slot and rookie first-rounder Artie Burns looks to cut his teeth and learn his craft while he waits for his opportunity.
If we are working under the assumption, then, that Cockrell will start on this defense until proven otherwise, logging upwards of 90 percent of the team’s snaps or more, we have to ask whether or not that is good enough, or simply their best option right now.
Last season, it would not have been good enough. Even by the end of the season, into the playoffs, he saw his playing time cut drastically. But he is entering this year having gained so much experience, and has also been said to have added some bulk to his lanky frame.
It will be important to monitor Cockrell’s performance during the preseason, and I am particularly interested in how he looks while set up in 3-4 looks, because he did not play at all last year when there were only two cornerbacks on the field. His run assignments will be much more important in those situations, as will the ability to play with physicality.
But Cockrell has never been through a Steelers training camp before, and here he should learn all about physicality. The Steelers are one of the few, if not the only team that actually incorporates live tackling drills, which has fallen out of favor, regarded as presenting too high a risk of injury.