PITTSBURGH — A year ago, Ross Cockrell wasn’t ready to stand across the line of scrimmage from one of the NFL’s best receivers and more than hold his own.
It wasn’t so much about confidence or ability, but knowledge. The cornerback needed time to adjust after getting cut by the Buffalo Bills and picked up by the Pittsburgh Steelers at the end of the 2015 preseason.
Yet there he was on Sunday, shadowing Cincinnati’s A.J. Green all over the field in Pittsburgh’s 24-16 victory, playing a vital role in a game plan that limited Green to just two receptions for 39 yards and shutting him out completely in the second half.
“There’s been a lot of growth and development in my game,” Cockrell said. “A lot of it is being around these guys, getting to know them. Last year it was just kind of plug and play.”
With mixed results. The Steelers went 11-7 and posted a significant uptick in sacks and turnovers created in 2015 but also finished 30th in passing yards allowed. Pittsburgh invested heavily in the secondary during the draft — taking cornerback Artie Burns in the first round and safety Sean Davis in the second — and while the box score doesn’t look that impressive (the Steelers are 31st against the pass through two weeks) all those yards have only translated into two touchdowns allowed during a 2-0 start.
“They’ve largely kept the ball in front,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. “They’ve particularly been stout when the field gets short and good on possession downs. Those are the things that define a secondary and particularly, define a defense. But, there’s more plays out there for us.”
Tomlin pointed specifically to instances where a defensive back managed to get his hand on the ball but failed to bring it in for an interception. Those concerns, however, are nitpicky at best.
Though Dalton passed for 366 yards, most of them were check downs to running backs and tight ends as Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler disguised coverages and seemed to throw Dalton off by having Cockrell trail Green, a departure from last season where cornerbacks largely stuck to one side of the field regardless of the matchup.
“We’re doing a lot of things differently defensively,” Cockrell said. “It’s one of the most complex things I’ve seen.”
Some things, however, remain basic. One of the biggest reasons Cincinnati went just 4 of 16 on third downs despite Dalton getting sacked just once (on a play that technically was a scramble for no gain) is because when Dalton dumped the ball off, the Steelers swarmed immediately.
“That’s just how their defense plays,” Dalton said. “They let the guy catch it and tackle. They are really sound on the way they play defense. They have done a good job with that.”
Everyone got in on the act. Burns knocked away a Dalton pass to Brandon LaFell in the end zone. Safety Robert Golden picked up a Tyler Boyd fumble caused by linebacker James Harrison — judiciously dropped into coverage at times in addition to rushing the passer — in the final 2 minutes to seal it. Safety Mike Mitchell sent a message early with hard but legal hits to Bengals when they came over the middle.
Cockrell did his part too. While making it a point not to disparage the Bills, it’s obvious he’s found a place to call home in Pittsburgh.
“It’s a good culture, a good atmosphere,” Cockrell said. “You realize there’s only one goal and everybody works toward that goal.”
The young guys included. Burns has rebounded quickly after spending most of training camp dealing with a quad injury. Davis can roam from nickelback to safety depending on the situation and the scheme. Most importantly, they’re absorbing as much as they can.
“What they’re learning now is the discipline it takes to perform at this level,” Cockrell said. “It’s an important lesson to learn early on.”
NOTES: Tomlin said Tuesday WR Markus Wheaton (shoulder) will practice this week and could be available on Sunday in Philadelphia. Wheaton practiced last week but was held out of the lineup for a second straight week.