PITTSBURGH — If there was ever an indicator of how far Ross Cockrell has come in his NFL career, it was Sunday.
The Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback’s primary assignment was to cover Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green, who has been selected to the Pro Bowl in each of his five NFL seasons. Cockrell was assigned the task a week after Green torched New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, a seven-time Pro Bowler, for 12 catches and 180 yards in a 23-22 season-opening win.
Yet the less-heralded Cockrell shut Green down, as the Steelers defeated the Bengals 24-16 at Heinz Field to run their record to 2-0. Green had just two receptions on eight targets for 38 yards and Cockrell defended two passes.
“Look at the stat line,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said when asked to assess Cockrell’s performance.
It is hard to draw many parallels between Cockrell and Revis.
While Revis is a surefire Hall of Famer, the Buffalo Bills released Cockrell at the end of the preseason last year just a year after drafting him in the fourth round from Duke.
The Bills changed coaches following Cockrell’s rookie season and Rex Ryan did not feel he possessed the toughness needed to play in the NFL. The Steelers claimed Cockrell off waivers and he made seven starts, intercepting two passes.
This season, he is a full-time starter on the outside along with William Gay while rookie Sean Davis mans the slot corner.
Cockrell has proven to be plenty tough enough for the Steelers, who are considered Super Bowl contenders. The Bills, meanwhile, haven’t made the playoffs since 1999 and their 16-year drought the longest active streak in the NFL.
“I’m more comfortable with who I am now and what I need to do to perform on the field,” Cockrell said. “I think that goes a long way. Being here, there are a lot of good guys. That’s not to say anything negative about any other place but there is a good culture here, a good atmosphere and you realize that there is one goal and only one goal — to win the Super Bowl —- and if you don’t reach that goal then it is a failure.”
Just how much Cockrell has grown showed in how in Tomlin was comfortable with putting him man-to-man on Green, who burned the Steelers for a combined 17 receptions, 250 yards and two touchdowns in two regular-season games last year.
“He’s growing in all areas,” Tomlin said. “He’s got the things that excite you. He’s tough, he’s smart and he’s a got a good above-the-neck game. He’s a worker. All of those things kind of make it a very natural progression that he’s going through, this improvement. I don’t think any of us are surprised by it. I think we all expect it to continue.”
The Steelers finished 30th among the 32 NFL teams in passing yards allowed last season and the secondary was considered suspect coming into this season. Andy Dalton threw for 366 yards on Sunday and the Washington Redskins’ Kirk Cousins had 329 yards in the opener on Monday night.
However, the Steelers have allowed only one touchdown pass in the first two games, Dalton’s 25-yarder to running back Giovani Bernard with 3:25 left that drew the Bengals within eight points.
The Bengals then reached the Steelers’ 39 with two minutes remaining but rookie wide receiver Tyler Boyd fumbled when hit by linebacker James Harrison following a 6-yard reception and safety Robert Golden recovered.
“Last year was last year,” Cockrell said. “This year, we’re doing a lot of different things. Our scheme is probably one of the most difficult things I’ve seen. We’re coming in early, studying, working hard.”
“We were throwing everything out there today. We had a good game plan. We played zone. We played man. Most of all, we were just lining up and playing some good hard-nosed AFC North football.”