Steelers' Blake prefers secondary job
Antwon Blake tossed and turned most nights during the offseason, in part, because he couldn't stop thinking about the preseason opener against the New York Giants.
This isn't just another exhibition game for the third-year cornerback. A lot will be at stake when he celebrates his 24th birthday Aug. 9 amid the lights at MetLife Stadium.
Blake is a determined headhunter on the Steelers' special teams. However, he possesses loftier expectations, including a chance to prove he can cover the league's top receivers.
“I can't get on the field until I learn the plays and consistently shut down receivers,” he said. “When I get my opportunity, I don't want to make any mistakes.”
Blake played sparingly in the secondary last season. But veteran cornerback Ike Taylor predicts Blake will get tossed into the fray this season.
“He's got all the tools, but he just has to be consistent,” Taylor said. “He's got to do that on game day. It'll put him in a good position.
“Blake isn't going anywhere. He's gone from being on special teams to finding a way in the rotation (in the secondary).”
At times, Blake has been able to match Pro Bowl receiver Antonio Brown stride for stride during the early days of training camp at St. Vincent. Yet the UTEP product understands the coaching staff will watch with greater scrutiny as he auditions against the Giants.
“I feel like I'm a pretty good corner,” Blake said. “I didn't come in with the same accolades as some guys, so I was overlooked. I don't have a problem working my way into the spotlight.”
Blake has had to earn his way in the NFL since signing with Jacksonville as an undrafted free agent in 2012. Even though most scouts projected him as a late-round selection, Blake wasn't among the 31 cornerbacks taken during the NFL Draft.
In fact, the Steelers used a seventh-round compensatory pick to take the last cornerback, Terrence Frederick.
“I felt I was better than a lot of guys who were drafted,” Blake said. “A lot of those guys are out of the league, and I'm still fighting.”
Blake was a standout on special teams in Jacksonville, leading the Jaguars with 13 special teams tackles in his rookie season. However, after failing to adapt at free safety, he was released the following preseason.
“I started playing safety at Jacksonville, and I feel as if I got lost in the wash,” he said. “They liked my physical skills and my knowledge of the game, but they felt I was a better fit at safety. At that time in my career, I was trying to learn every position on the field.”
The Steelers signed him off waivers partly because of injuries to cornerbacks Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown, who had been the Steelers' most-productive player on special teams, but the coaches' confidence in him eroded with every nagging injury.
As a result, Blake was given another shot.
“When I got release, I was shocked,” Blake said. “I wasn't on the street too long before the Steelers called. I wanted to get to Pittsburgh as fast as I could and do whatever they wanted me to.
“But Jacksonville added a little more fuel to my fire. I told myself I didn't want to be in that position again.
“I realize it's a blessing to be in the NFL, and it's something I don't want to take for granted. The one thing I can control is my work ethic and my desire to be a significant contributor on this team.”
During the offseason, Blake concentrated on expanding his role, working on his technique, speed, strength, quickness and cover skills.
No one has been as impressed as special teams coach Danny Smith.
“I love him to death,” Smith said. “He's fun to be around, and he's going to be a great player because he wants to be. He's got speed. He's got strength. He's got quickness.
“He came in with a purpose. He's always busting his butt. It gives me confidence going into a stadium. When you punt the football, and you have Antwon Blake, there's a level of comfort for a coach because we're know what he's going to get done.”
Blake, of course, is hoping to earn the confidence of secondary coach Carnell Lake and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
“If I can get into a game, the trust will come,” he said. “I know as a second-teamer, I'll be in there rather quickly in that first preseason game. I just want to be ready to make a play. I keep telling myself to put something on tape that I'll be proud of.”
Blake has been as impressive in man coverage as Taylor, Cortez Allen and William Gay.
“What makes a great player is attention to detail,” Smith said. “He'll be a big-time contributor to our special teams, but he'll help our defense, too. I trust him because he makes a lot of plays.”
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.