Labriola On

Labriola on Jones, losing Boykin & Blake

Ready or not, here it comes:

  • The first time I ever experienced the phenomenon was in the first offseason of free agency, 1993, and the player at the time was Aaron Jones. The team's first-round pick of the 1988 NFL Draft, Jones was supposed to be the defensive end/outside linebacker the team needed to juice a pass rush that had produced 26 sacks in 15 games the previous season.
  • Jones wasn't that. Over five seasons, Jones played in 67 games for the Steelers, with 22 starts, and he totaled 9.5 sacks. As might be expected, a No. 1 pick who was supposed to be a pass rusher and didn't turn out to be a pass rusher got a lot, a lot, of criticism from the media and fans.
  • After many years of ripping Aaron Jones for not being able to get to the quarterback, when he left the Steelers for the New England Patriots during the 1993 offseason, there actually were fans and media who complained, "What are (the Steelers) going to do for a pass rush now?"
  • That same logic seems to be at work again this offseason, albeit at a different position: cornerback.
  • The Steelers finished 30th in the NFL in pass defense in 2015, and that particular area of the team is considered largely responsible for there not being a parade through Downtown Pittsburgh back in mid-February following the seventh Super Bowl championship in franchise history.
  • The player most often identified as being the primary individual culprit for that bit of angst was Antwon Blake, a guy who had been signed as an undrafted rookie by the Jaguars to play safety, was cut, picked off the waiver wire by the Steelers in 2013 to bolster special teams, and then a couple of years later had been pressed into a starting role on defense because Cortez Allen showed himself to be incapable of handling the job.
  • It didn't really matter that Blake in fact wasn't solely responsible, nor did it really matter that Blake was mis-cast as a starting cornerback in the first place. Blake became the face of the frustrations of Steelers Nation when it came to the assignation of blame for the pass defense, and that was that.
  • Until a couple of weeks ago, that is, when Blake signed with the Tennessee Titans as an unrestricted free agent. That's when Blake began to be identified in some quarters as a piece of evidence for the argument the Steelers had become a worse team because of the free agents they had failed to re-sign.
  • "What are they going to do for cornerbacks now?"
  • The guy on the opposite end of the fans' irrational emotion spectrum is Brandon Boykin, or Mel Blount Jr., as he came to be called by the segment of the media covering the Steelers who were most often exposed to his unofficial social media fan club.
  • Boykin made his first visit of this free agency period – to Carolina last Monday, March 28 – and he signed with the Panthers later the same day. Boykin was employed by the Steelers for one season, less than a calendar year, and yet he found a way to be the polarizing figure of the team's 2015 season.
  • Not polarizing in the way of being a distraction, or being a bad teammate, or by complaining about what his role was vs. what he believed his role should be. No, there was none of that from Boykin, but plenty from the team's fan base, which had come to advocate the Anybody But Blake philosophy.
  • The reasons behind Boykin's irregular role on the Steelers defense had to do with his inability, in the judgment of the coaching staff, to play an outside cornerback position, as well as his periodic lapses in the tackling requirements of his position. Now, understand that there is a difference between missing tackles, and not enthusiastically putting one's body in the path of a guy with the football. Boykin's problem had to do with the latter.
  • He wasn't physical, and that's the way the Steelers want to play defense. Blake was more physical, and so Blake played.
  • As the season progressed, the Steelers began to turn to Boykin more, and come the final games of the regular season and into the playoffs, Boykin was a regular part of a rotation system employed in the defensive backfield. And in the fourth quarter of the Divisional Round Playoff loss in Denver, if fans were paying attention, there were a couple of excellent examples of why the Steelers coaches were not as enamored with Boykin as that faction of the team's fans were.
  • It was in the middle of the fourth quarter, and the Steelers were clinging to a 13-12 lead. Denver had the ball with 8:37 remaining, with a third-and-12 from its own 33-yard line. Peyton Manning's pass over the middle was complete to Bennie Fowler, and rather than make the physical play, which would have been to tackle the catch, Boykin tried to undercut and make a play on the ball. He missed, and Fowler then was free to turn upfield and complete a 33-yard catch-and-run for a first down at the Pittsburgh 36-yard line.
  • On what turned out to be the final scrimmage play on that drive – a third-and-goal from the Steelers 1-yard line – Boykin was unblocked on a running play to C.J. Anderson, but instead of throwing his body at the chore of getting Anderson on the ground, he reached and appeared to grab at shoulder pads as Anderson powered past him into the end zone for a touchdown. Hand Boykin a red cape in that situation and he looks like a matador.
  • Get Anderson on the ground there, and it's fourth-and-goal, and Gary Kubiak likely orders a field goal to take a 15-13 lead. Then when the Steelers got the ball back after the ensuing kickoff at their 20-yard line with three minutes and three timeouts left, all they would have needed was a field goal instead of a touchdown.
  • And again, it wasn't so much that Boykin didn't, or couldn't, keep Anderson and his 224 pounds out of the end zone, but it was the manner in which he tried to accomplish the task that illustrated why his role had been what it had been.
  • Boykin now is a part of the Carolina Panthers thanks to the one-year veteran minimum contract he signed last Monday, and it's worth noting that General Manager Dave Gettleman said at the time of the signing that Boykin was brought to the team to compete at the slot cornerback position and also contribute on special teams.
  • Not to replace Josh Norman.
  • As for the Steelers, it's all about "what are they going to do for cornerbacks now?"
  • How they get there is going to play out over the next couple of months, but what isn't in doubt is they have to be better than they were last year. They have to do better than Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin.
  • And so, doesn't it seem logical that losing what needed to be replaced anyway isn't really a loss at all?
  • Just like Aaron Jones.
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