Although cornerback Antwon Blake has struggled mightily in pass coverage this season, the Steelers can still make the most of his abilities by moving him back to his natural safety spot.
It took thirteen agonizing weeks, but Pittsburgh finally adhered to the public’s cry for Brandon Boykin to step in at cornerback last Sunday against the Colts. Boykin was primarily kept in the slot, with William Gay and Ross Cockrell taking outside duties. Blake did open the game as a starter but was largely removed from the defensive shuffle in the first half.
For the first time all season, Blake was benched.
This was a necessary move not just for the entire defense, but for #41 himself. Consecutive weeks of blown coverage and whiffed tackles left Blake lacking confidence, and it was evident in his play. A thumb injury is rumored to be causing Blake’s issues, particularly tackling. Still, his man-to-man errors are simply too great to regain his role as a starter. This is especially true in the heat of the AFC Playoff race.
If it were up to the hot take-spewing armchair coaches on social media, Blake would be cut by now. Using a more rational approach, however, opens the door for a potential long-term solution for both the Steelers and their embattled cornerback.
Coming out of UTEP, Blake had experience as both a free safety and a cornerback. Originally signed by the Jaguars as an undrafted free agent in 2012, Blake played free safety during his lone year in Jacksonville. There’s no real film of Blake as a safety in the NFL since he didn’t start for the Jags in his rookie year. It’s not hard to see why he could excel as a safety now, though.
Blake possess qualities that are essential for an impact safety. He’s fast, hits hard, and demonstrates good football instincts. His career highlight reel is undoubtedly scarce, but the moments in which Blake shines are often game-changers.
In week 8’s loss to the Bengals, Blake sniped a would-be Andy Dalton touchdown pass as he read Dalton’s eyes the whole way. A few weeks earlier, he undercut a Philip Rivers throw and weaved through San Diego’s offense for six. In both instances, Blake’s football IQ allowed him to take advantage of predetermined routes. His pure athleticism gives him the ability to turn a crowded interception into a breakaway run.
Blake’s tackling must improve regardless of position, although it will be interesting to see him once his hand is fully healed. His troubles with tackling were not this much of a concern earlier in the season.
Lastly, moving Blake to safety might be necessary for the Steelers. Current strong safety Will Allen will be 34 by the start of next season, and he becomes an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Allen is the veteran leader of the secondary and an absolute value for the level he’s playing on, but the team’s future at safety can’t continue to be pushed aside. If the Steelers are serious about ushering in their projected starter opposite Mike Mitchell, Allen will be playing elsewhere next fall.
Allen’s departure would ideally clear the stage for 2013 fourth-round pick Shamarko Thomas, who avoids the field constantly thanks to injuries and reluctant management. In total this season, Thomas has recorded a single tackle; he has 38 total in his career. Aside from a couple scattered highlights, Thomas has been largely invisible for the Steelers. The coaching staff doesn’t seem to believe in him. If he’s ‘not ready’ by now, when will he be?
It’s far too early to exile Antwon Blake from Pittsburgh. He has the potential to be a steady starting cornerback in the NFL. But a switch to strong safety, even if temporarily, will give Blake a fresh slate to work with.
If things go well, he could etch his name into the Steelers defense for years to come.
All stats used are appropriately linked in-text.