Secondary Shuffle – 2015: Boykin, Blake, And Benchings

While the 2015 season saw the Pittsburgh Steelers experience the last licks of their two most important defensive backs since Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake—those being Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu—the following year brought a fresh cast of characters.

Well, a couple of new characters and a couple of characters previously in supporting roles seeing even greater opportunities. While others lost their chances. I’m not sure how many recall this, but Cortez Allen and Shamarko Thomas were intended to be in the starting lineup in 2015. The coaching staff made the decision to demote them prior to the regular season opener in favor of Antwon Blake and Will Allen.

Player 2015 Games 2015 Starts 2015 Snaps
William Gay 16 16 1088
Mike Mitchell 16 16 1068
Antwon Blake 16 16 937
Will Allen 13 13 829
Ross Cockrell 15 7 698
Robert Golden 16 3 400
Brandon Boykin 16 1 281
Cortez Allen 1 0 32
Shamarko Thomas 15 0 21

With Ryan Clark having already been replaced by Mike Mitchell in 2014, Polamalu was replaced by Allen (after Thomas was given a chance), and then Taylor was replaced by William Gay, who started the 2014 season in the nickel, while Cortez Allen subsequently lost his starting job to Blake. So this is how it was originally supposed to look:

2015 Cortez Allen William Gay Antwon Blake Shamarko Thomas Mike Mitchell

And this is how it ended up looking by the kickoff of the regular season opener:

2015 Antwon Blake William Gay Cortez Allen Will Allen Mike Mitchell

And you can bet that changed once again. Cortez Allen was initially working in the nickel, but once again dealt with injuries. He ended up being replaced by Ross Cockrell, with Cockrell and Blake playing outside and Gay moving to the nickel in sub-packages. By the end of the season, however, Blake would lose favor over Brandon Boykin, playing in the slot between Cockrell and Gay, resulting in a final starting lineup that looked like this.

2015 Ross Cockrell William Gay Brandon Boykin Will Allen Mike Mitchell

The Steelers traded a fifth-round pick for Boykin but struggled to get him on the field for most of the season, which was a major source of controversy among fans who believed that the coaching staff conspired to keep his snap count down to avoid activating a trade condition that elevated the draft pick given up to a fourth-rounder.

After Allen’s early-season injury Boykin and Cockrell rotated as the third cornerback in Week Two, but Cockrell settled into the third role after finding some success, including a key recovered fumble and an interception.

So for a good chunk of the season, it was Gay and Blake starting in the base defense, and Cockrell coming on the field to move Gay over into the slot in sub-packages. Needless to say, this didn’t go so great. Blake gave up the most receiving yardage of all cornerbacks in the NFL that year, though Cockrell had his moments.

Toward the third quarter of the season, Boykin was beginning to get snaps, and an interception helped his case. Cockrell and Blake began to rotate as the left outside cornerback, with Cockrell eventually taking the bulk of the snaps,  Gay to the right and Boykin in the slot. This is the group that finished out the year.

Will Allen did have a solid season in his one year as a full-time starter with the Steelers, and even recorded four sacks. He missed three games with an ankle injury, which gave Robert Golden an opportunity to have a starting stint of his own, playing well and resulting in him being given the chance to start at the beginning of the 2016 season. Cockrell also got a shot to start the following year based on his 2015 performance.

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