You should always be careful of what you ask for, lest you end up getting it. That is what happened to Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ross Cockrell, who just recently said that he wanted to get his opportunity to go up against All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown during practice, against whom the team has stuck second-year Artie Burns.
But with Burns going down with a leg injury on Friday night, it was Cockrell who functioned as the Steelers’ top cornerback, and for much of yesterday’s practice, that meant shadowing Brown. So he got what he asked for. And, well, he did about as well as he could.
The thing about anybody going up against Antonio Brown is the basic fact that the wide receiver is going to comfortably win his share of one-on-one opportunities. He is simply too good to lose too many of them, no matter who is covering them.
So the key here is to, at the very least, force him to make catches with a high degree of difficulty, and a lot of the plays that Brown did make in practice were ones that he really had to work for, including one disputed touchdown that some believe he was out of bounds for courtesy of a Cockrell shove.
Make no mistake, Brown got a couple of his victories pretty cleanly. But the fourth-year cornerback did perform admirably, and even managed to knock one pass away. This whole scenario is a process and is aimed toward growing and getting better.
With it sounding as though Burns is going to miss at least a couple more days of practice, Cockrell is going to get even more opportunities to work against Brown, during which he should just hope to be able to make a reasonable number of plays, rather than focusing on the number of times that the wide receiver will get the best of him.
Much attention has been paid to the development of Burns in his second season, but the reality is that their other starting cornerback is in many ways in the same situation, or at least a very similar one. The 2016 season was the first taste of full-time starting experience for both of them.
Over the past three years, Cockrell probably hasn’t even been given many opportunities to play against Brown in practice, because the Steelers wanted to stick Burns on him since he was drafted. That paid off for the then-rookie, but now their other cornerback wants his shot to benefit from going up against the best.
The next few practices will be a great opportunity for Cockrell to grow and to learn lessons from Brown that he can extrapolate and use in defending others. He said that he has a preference for defending taller receivers. This gives him the best of another look.