All systems are go when it comes to continuing the division of labor among the Steelers cornerbacks that was instituted in the victory over Indianapolis, and there are consequences for fumbling the football.
Those were just a couple of the takeaways from Mike Tomlin's weekly news conference today at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex as the Steelers get set to being preparation for the next step in their journey to secure a spot in the playoffs, that being the annual trip to Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.
In the 45-10 victory over Indianapolis last Sunday night at Heinz Field, a rotation was instituted at cornerback, where previously the defined roles had Antwon Blake and William Gay as the starters, with Gay sliding into the slot and Ross Cockrell taking his place outside in sub-package football. Against the Colts, Brandon Boykin saw his most extensive action on defense all season, when he played 40 snaps and finished with an interception and two passes defensed.
"I thought (his performance) was good," said Tomlin when asked to evaluate Boykin. "Alignment and communication is not an issue with him. He appears to be a bright guy and has done a nice job of fitting in in that regard. I thought he did a nice job with the snaps that he had, and we'll continue with that as we're moving forward. I thought, just largely, the redistribution of snaps aided all of us. I thought Antwon Blake was more significant on special teams for example, because of the reduced number of snaps. I think he had a kickoff tackle inside the 15-yard line. There's a lot of byproduct, or hopefully positive things, from the distribution of the snaps. Hopefully it continues."
The challenge for all of those guys will increase considerably as the result of the quality of the upcoming opponent. The 10-2 Bengals rank in the top third in the NFL in every significant passing statistic to this point in the season, and Andy Dalton throwing to A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Marvin Jones, and Mohamed Sanu is a much more potentially combustible situation than what the Colts presented the Steelers pass defense last weekend.
Green is a 1,000-yard receiver already this season, and he has caught seven touchdown passes; Eifert has 12 touchdowns; Jones is averaging 12.7 yards on his 47 catches, and Sanu is the kind of No. 4 option who can cause sleepless nights for opposing defensive coordinators.
"Defending Tyler Eifert doesn't occur in a vacuum," said Tomlin. "We've outlined this in other discussions in recent weeks. When you're focused solely on minimizing someone's contributions, there's an unintended consequence for that. Our job is to minimize the Cincinnati Bengals' offense. So, we're going to try to stay focused on that end. At times that may mean minimizing Tyler, at times it may mean minimizing A.J. Green, or Sanu, or Jones or the two-headed monster that's in the backfield. I think it's going to require all of the above in order for us to be successful in slowing those guys down."
One of the negatives in the victory over the Colts was the Steelers kick return game, where Jacoby Jones lost a fumble on the opening kickoff, and then he muffed a punt with two minutes left in the first half that was recovered by Darrius Heyward-Bey. A couple of hours before Tomlin's news conference began, the team's most recent depth chart was released, and it listed Markus Wheaton as the No. 1 kickoff returner, with Jones second and Fitzgerald Toussaint third; and at punt returner, it was Antonio Brown at No. 1, Wheaton No. 2, and Jones No. 3.
"I think the depth chart clearly reflects that (Jones is) a backup this week," said Tomlin. "We'll proceed with that in mind as we prepare. We'll get Markus Wheaton ready to return kickoffs, and Antonio Brown and Wheaton as punt returners, and we'll see where that takes us."
And Tomlin was very clear on the reason behind the change at the two return positions. "The ball security, or lack thereof, being the significant reason."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"Heath Miller has a chance this week. Like last week, we'll gauge his practice participation and the quality of that participation in determining his availability with his rib injury. Will Gay is in the concussion protocol. I don't have an update on that. We'll follow the regular procedure in terms of determining his availability. Shaun Spence's availability will be determined on his ability to practice, or how much he practices on that hamstring. Matt Spaeth could be limited early in the week and maybe even affected from an availability standpoint depending on how his knee looks. I know there was some soreness following the game."