Injuries are forcing Steelers to keep shuffling cornerbacks
When the Steelers conducted organized team activities last summer, veteran William Gay stood alone atop their depth chart at cornerback.
With the regular season to end Sunday in Cleveland, Gay remains there. But little else about the position is the same.
And with two of the four cornerbacks on their 53-man roster having made it through one full practice each this week, the depth chart potentially could be altered more for Sunday's game.
“If that's the case, that won't be a problem for us,” Brandon Boykin said. “We will prepare to get the job done whoever is out there.”
Boykin was speaking immediately after a Friday practice in which Antwon Blake and Doran Grant each participated fully. It was Blake's first time practicing since he had left the Baltimore game early because of a back injury, and Grant (groin) hadn't practiced Thursday after being limited Wednesday.
Their improved status mitigates the possibility that the Steelers might have to go into a game with only three cornerbacks in uniform. It still is possible that Isaiah Frey could be signed off the practice squad.
Blake's reduced practice time this week follows a trend over recent games in which his playing time has decreased. Some of his snaps, in effect, have been transferred to Boykin.
As a result, even if Blake cannot play Sunday, the Steelers' secondary has enough experience playing without him.
“Everybody that's played,” Boykin said, “whether it's me and Gay and Blake, or me and Ross and Blake, or whoever, all of us have played together and we know each position.”
The Steelers most often are in their nickel defense with three cornerbacks on the field. The Gay/Blake/Cockrell combination has by far accounted for most of the Steelers' nickel snaps this season (629, according to the NFL's statistical service) — but Gay/Cockrell/Boykin have played 116 together.
“We can play any combination,” Cockrell said. “Everybody's been playing, now, significant snaps in the latter part of the year, so we're all pretty comfortable with each other. Everybody knows what they're doing out there.”
That is not inconsequential considering that of the six cornerbacks on the 53-man roster and practice squad, only two (Gay and Blake) have been with the organization for more than eight months. Grant was a fourth-round pick in May, Boykin arrived via an Aug. 1 trade, Cockrell was signed Sept. 5 and Frey was added to the practice squad Oct. 27.
Whereas the Steelers entered the summer believing Cortez Allen and Senquez Golson would be part of their secondary, by winter those plans had changed dramatically. (Allen and Golson are on injured reserve).
Grant, who was on the practice squad until the midway point of the season, played his first NFL snap last week after Blake went down.
“I'm confident in myself for sure, definitely,” Grant said. “If they need me, I'll be ready.”
If the Steelers enter Sunday's game down a cornerback or two because of injury, they are confident they will be able to adapt because they have had to do just that — adapt — to personnel changes all season. The recent trend of sometimes rotating snaps between Cockrell, Boykin and Blake will help, too.
“It's been nice having the rotation and keeping our legs fresh and all that,” Cockrell said. “If Blake can't go, it'll put extra pressure on Boykin and I, but we've been relying on Gay all year and we will continue to do that.”