For many weeks now, fans have been asking variations of the same question, that question being, what will it take for Coach Mike Tomlin to make personnel changes at cornerback? The answer came today during Tomlin's weekly news conference, and the particulars could be found within the Steelers' 39-30 loss in Seattle to the Seahawks.
"(Antwon) Blake had some difficulties in the game from a tackling perspective. I think you could say the same about Ross Cockrell," said Tomlin about the guys who have been manning the two outside cornerback positions for the team through much of this season when the defense is in its sub-packages. "We're going to give both guys a chance to rebound, but we're also going to look at other options this week as well, because that's the prudent and appropriate thing to do. We have some other guys who are capable."
Among the available options, based on the current configuration of the Steelers' 53-man roster, are Brandon Boykin and rookie Doran Grant, and also possibly moving Will Gay from the slot to one of the outside positions along with one, or both, of those moves.
"We just had a brief conversation this week and acknowledged those things are on the table," said Tomlin. "We've yet to formulate any hard-core decisions in that regard, because those meetings occur later on today, but we acknowledge those guys (Blake and Cockrell) need to play better. Particularly, they need to tackle better. We also acknowledge those performances merit an opportunity to look at our options in that area, while at the same time giving those guys – particularly the two I mentioned (Blake and Cockrell) – an opportunity to rebound.
"We're going to look at Brandon Boykin, maybe, getting an opportunity to work within that mix," said Tomlin. "We're going to look at the utilization of William Gay, maybe to the outside. We're going to turn over all those stones as we formulate a plan here this week."
In Seattle, Russell Wilson completed 70 percent of his passes for five touchdowns and no interceptions, with the Seahawks utilizing some of that to convert 54 percent on third downs and go a perfect 4-for-4 in the red zone. Wilson completed touchdown passes of 30 and 80 yards, plus a 36-yarder to Jimmy Graham that preceded a 1-yard touchdown run by Thomas Rawls.
"We have to limit the explosion plays," said Tomlin. "I don't care how you play over the course of the game, you give up an 80-yard play, then that's going to characterize your day from a pass defense standpoint, at least it has for me in the years I've been in this league. If you give up 80-yard plays, it's not good. It usually defines your day in some form or fashion. It did in our last opportunity, especially so because of the significance of (the 80-yard play that came on a third-and-9) at a significant moment in the game. We'll move on from that and hopefully learn from it."
Steelers fans have been clamoring for Boykin for months now. The team sent a conditional fifth-round pick in the 2016 draft to the Eagles for Boykin back on Aug. 1. But even though Boykin arrived here with an NFL resume that included a 2013 season containing six interceptions and 16 passes defensed, his playing time on defense has been very limited.
When asked about what the Steelers liked about Boykin in making the trade, Tomlin said, "He's got a good above-the-neck-game. He's a detail guy. He was a highly productive guy when he came out of college. He has been a highly productive guy when given the opportunity in the NFL – I think he had a big interception season a number of years ago. Since we acquired him, he's done a nice job of learning what to do, but really he's distinguished himself as an interior cornerback. William Gay has played primarily in the interior and has been rock solid for us from start to finish. The performance on the outside, by the guys I mentioned, needs to be better based on the last performance, but it's not as though it's been consistently below the line when looking at the larger body of work. It really hadn't been a big discussion about repping Boykin to this point. I acknowledge it's going to be a big discussion as we prepare this week."
Grant was the team's No. 4 pick in the 2015 draft, and he spent the first eight weeks of the season on the practice squad. He was added to the active roster in the days leading up to the Nov. 8 matchup vs. the Oakland Raiders. So far, Grant has been inactive twice, and he was in uniform but didn't play against Cleveland on Nov. 15.
"He's on the 53-man roster, so we're going to work him this week," said Tomlin about Grant. "We'll make determinations about who gets hatted (for the game) based on that. I'm not going to discount his presence, because he is on the active roster."
The personnel may change, but the tasks with which they will be charged don't.
"I'm less concerned about the yards, because yards never tell the complete story," said Tomlin about the play of the secondary. "Sometimes yards just might tell you number of attempts. We were up on Cleveland, and they attempted to throw the ball quite a bit, and sometimes yardage is associated with that.
"I tend to focus on situational football and let that define the evaluation of performance. We need to better in the red area than we were last Sunday on defense. We need to be better on third down, particularly third-and-long, than we were last Sunday on defense. If you are, it keeps the point total down. And if you're better on third downs, it eliminates subsequent downs that occur after that, which has an impact on their number of attempts."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"Earl (Heath) Miller has a rib injury. We're going to watch and manage him throughout the course of the week, and check his level of participation in practice and his availability because of it. He wasn't able to finish the football game. Mike Mitchell is experiencing some knee inflammation that may limit him in the early portion of the week. Ryan Shazier sustained a concussion and was not able to return. I think it was maybe in the beginning of the second quarter. He'll be in the concussion protocol. Ben Roethlisberger also experienced what now is being described as a concussion. He'll be in the concussion protocol. We'll do what we always do with those guys. We'll be very diligent about their care. We'll lean on the expert advice of our medical team, who always do a great job and will do what's appropriate at the end of the week, or whenever that decision-making time is. Right now I can tell you that both guys are in the protocol, will remain in the protocol, even if they feel better they're going to remain in the protocol. We're going to do our due diligence under the guidelines that have been prescribed in recent years.
"Ben self-reported his (concussion); there's no new news there. He self-reported it after the series that he finished. When he self-reported it, we took care of him in the appropriate manner. Ryan Shazier didn't have to self-report his. It was obvious. The medical team saw it. I saw it. We caught him as he came to the sideline, and we gave him the necessary medical care that he needed.
"Sean Spence has a minor hamstring injury. We're going to monitor it. I don't know the state of it. I guess his practice participation will be the biggest indicator of his status."