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Cockrell gets chance against team that cut him

Joe Rutter
| Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016, 7:03 p.m.
Browns receiver Terrelle Pryor catches a pass in front of Steelers cornerback Ross Cockrell during the first quarter Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016, at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Browns receiver Terrelle Pryor catches a pass in front of Steelers cornerback Ross Cockrell during the first quarter Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016, at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland.
Steelers cornerback Ross Cockrell tackles Giants running back Rashad Jennings in the third quarter Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016, at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers cornerback Ross Cockrell tackles Giants running back Rashad Jennings in the third quarter Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016, at Heinz Field.

At first, William Gay didn't understand the smile.

Sure, Steelers cornerback Ross Cockrell would flash his teeth after defending a pass on the football field. That was expected. But he also would do it after being beaten for a big gain.

“He smiles whether he's doing good or whether somebody's catching the ball on him,” Gay said Thursday. “He smiles, and I'm like, ‘This man smiles in the face of adversity,' and that's what you need in a corner.”

Like a closer wanting the baseball the day after a blown save, Gay said the 25-year-old Cockrell takes the same approach to each pass whether it is completed, batted down or intercepted.

“He doesn't (get bothered),” Gay said. “If he makes a good play, he'll just look at you and I'm like, ‘You've got to celebrate.' If somebody catches a ball on him, it's still the same look.

“It's a good quality he has. It's hard for people to have that even-keel mentality. You can talk and say you're going to have an even-keel attitude, but it's hard to do it with so many emotions going on in the game.”

Such a demeanor usually is seen in a tenured player, not one in his third NFL season, second with his current team and one who didn't become a full-time starter until this year.

“I don't know how he developed it,” said Gay, a 10-year veteran corner. “But I'm glad he did.”

Which is why Cockrell is unlikely to be fazed Sunday when he returns to Buffalo to play against the team that drafted him in 2014, yet cut him one year later.

Cockrell has been too busy preparing for a game that is crucial to the Steelers playoff positioning to get sentimental, but he did allow that his life changed in a flash after the Bills surprisingly waived him Aug. 31, 2015.

“It seems like a lot has happened, but it's only been a year,” Cockrell said. “It's exciting to be able to go back, but I'm so excited for the opportunity in Pittsburgh.”

Six days after being let go by Buffalo, Cockrell signed with the Steelers. He played in 15 regular-season games, starting seven, and was in a rotation with Antwon Blake, collecting two interceptions.

The Steelers re-signed Cockrell and cut ties not only with Blake but Brandon Boykin, a veteran they acquired via trade last season. Cockrell has started all 12 games this year and although he doesn't have an interception, he leads the Steelers with 11 passes defensed, matching his total from 2015.

Cockrell's play has helped the Steelers withstand a second consecutive season without former second-round draft pick Senquez Golson. And recently, Cockrell has done it while being paired with rookie first-round pick Artie Burns on the other corner.

“We've challenged (Cockrell) in ways that maybe aren't necessarily fair to him or a guy in his position,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “Oftentimes, we treat him as a much more seasoned player than he actually is in terms of the things we ask him to do.”

One is occasionally matching up with the opposing team's top receiver. He shadowed the Bengals' A.J. Green and the Jets' Brandon Marshall earlier this season, and he spent much of the first half last Sunday holding the Giants' Odell Beckham Jr. to one catch for 10 yards.

“He's got a great attitude in terms of accepting those challenges,” Tomlin said. “And equally as important, his play has been really solid.”

Cockrell has experienced some struggles, too. He's been flagged for pass interference four times (one declined) and his unnecessary roughness penalty late against the Dallas Cowboys aided a go-ahead touchdown.

“I think I've evolved just with my experience being able to get on the field and demonstrate what I can do,” Cockrell said. “I don't think much has changed, but I've been able to learn the NFL game and what it takes to succeed.”

Bills coach Rex Ryan regrets cutting Cockrell. In his first training camp with the Bills, Ryan was intrigued by Cockrell but came up with a “brilliant idea” — his words — with the first round of cuts approaching. Cockrell had been injured in a scrimmage and had limited playing time in exhibition games.

“Hey, maybe we can stash him on the practice squad,” Ryan said Wednesday.

Bills general manager Doug Whaley, an Upper St. Clair native and former Steelers pro personnel coordinator, drafted Cockrell in the fourth round out of Duke in 2014.

“He knew (Cockrell) much more than I did,” Ryan said. “I own up to it. We were excited about him. Shoot, nobody has seen him on tape, people think he's coming off an injury.

“To me, it made perfect sense that we could get him on the practice squad. Well, that never happened.”

As he prepares to shuffle off to upstate New York to face his former team, Cockrell does so with a measure of confidence, as a player who in 16 months has gone from unemployed to starting for a 7-5 team that has played strong defense while building a three-game winning streak.

“I feel very good,” Cockrell said, flashing his smile. “Buffalo was the place that gave me my first opportunity in the NFL. I'm very thankful and grateful for that, but I'm excitied to go back as a Pittsburgh Steelers, with a chance to continue our road to the playoffs.”

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

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