Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ross Cockrell (31) tackles New York Giants wide receiver Sterling Shepard (87) during the first half of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Jared Wickerham)
Jared Wickerham
December 07, 2016

PITTSBURGH (AP) Mike Tomlin is not a big picture guy. The Pittsburgh Steelers coach, as he likes to say, prefers not to ''paint with a broad brush.''

Only when the season is over will Tomlin widen out the lens. Still, even with a month to go Tomlin acknowledged the responsibilities placed on cornerback Ross Cockrell have been borderline unfair. Signed off the waiver wire in the summer of 2015, Cockrell has rapidly evolved into Pittsburgh's equivalent of a shutdown corner, a spot he earned through a combination of merit and attrition.

And one in which Cockrell has largely thrived. The latest proof came last Sunday, when Cockrell and rookie first-round pick Artie Burns helped keep New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. in check for large portions of a 24-14 win that kept Pittsburgh (7-5) tied for first in the AFC North.

Not bad for a player deemed expendable by the Buffalo Bills - whom the Steelers visit this weekend - who also spent a large portion of 2015 playing only in sub packages. Now he's the guy Tomlin turns to first when facing a top-flight wide receiver.

''Because of his partner being the young guy that he is in Artie Burns, we've challenged him in ways that maybe aren't necessarily fair to him or a guy in his position,'' Tomlin said. ''Oftentimes, we treat him as a much more seasoned player than he actually is in terms of the things we ask him to do.''

That's fine by Cockrell, who has lined up across from Beckham, A.J. Green and Dez Bryant among others while helping anchor a secondary that is starting to come together after a slow start. Ranked 30th against the pass a month ago, the Steelers have steadily improved to 19th during a three-game winning streak. New York's Eli Manning managed just 195 yards through the air, with 52 of them coming on a meaningless last-minute drive when the outcome was already decided.

Cockrell hardly claims to be a miracle worker, quickly passing credit to a rejuvenated pass rush that has generated 13 sacks over the last three weeks - or the same total the Steelers managed through the first nine games combined.

''We are getting pressure on the quarterback and that helps a whole bunch on the back end,'' Cockrell said. ''So long as those guys continue to perform well, I think we'll be a good defense.''

The Steelers prefer to mix up their matchups and Burns is rapidly maturing into the aggressive force they envisioned when they took him with the 25th overall pick in the draft. Cockrell entered the league as a fourth-round selection in 2014, but lost his job at the end of his second training camp with the Bills. The Steelers didn't waste any time picking him up.

''One man's misfortune, or one organization's luxury, is another one's opportunity,'' Tomlin said. ''We were thankful he was available to us. He's been a consistent performer for us. And one that's been consistently on the rise.''

The Bills in a way offer a breather of sorts, at least when it comes to throwing all over the field. Buffalo is dead last in passing and quarterback Tyrod Taylor is struggling to find any sort of rhythm. While running back LeSean McCoy is so dynamic Buffalo often doesn't need Taylor to put it up to move the ball, a little bit of Taylor and wide receiver Sammie Watkins could go a long way for the Bills. It will be up to Cockrell and company to try and keep Watkins under wraps and Pittsburgh's late-season surge afloat.

''I think we're all just growing thorough the process, and thankfully, I think we're growing in the right ways,'' Tomlin said. ''And I think that's helping us put better tape out there and putting us in position to win the games.''

NOTES: Tomlin said there's a chance injured kicker Chris Boswell (abdomen) could return this weekend but the team will hold on to Randy Bullock just in case. ... RB DeAngelo Williams (knee) and WR Darrius Heyward-Bey (foot) could return to practice this week.


For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

You May Like

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)