Football fans, at least Pittsburgh Steelers fans, typically focus on free agency as a time when their favorite franchise allows talented players to walk out the back door while doing precious little to entice new ones to enter the front door. There’s a lot of history to back up that perception.
- But there’s a flip side to free agency that fans too often forget.
Free agency gives the team a chance to cleanse the locker room of players who are too often below the line. Historically you can see this in the departures of players such as Aaron Jones in 1992 and Ziggy Hood after 2012, and most probably Cam Thomas in 2016.
In 2016, most of Steelers Nation wishes to see the same thing happen with Steelers free agent cornerback Antwon Blake, although the odds are against that happening an perhaps that’s a good thing….
Capsule Profile of Antwon Blake’s Career with the Steelers
The Steelers main challenge when the broke training camp in 2013 wasn’t deciding which players to keep it was finding a way to stop the cutting, to paraphrase Chuck Noll’s old saying. The Steelers were deep in salary cap purgatory and depth at several position areas was critically thin.
- Kevin Colbert went waiver wire shopping, and two of the players he picked up where Cody Wallace and Antwon Blake.
Blake played almost exclusively on special teams during the 2013 season, yet when reporters questioned why the Steelers waited so long to take a defensive back in the 2014 NFL Draft, secondary coach Carnell Lake pointed to Antwon Blake without batting an eye.
- Blake only started one game in 2014, but began to make his presence felt.
First Blake scored a 4th quarter interception of Andrew Luck in the Steelers shoot out vs. Indianapolis, then in the regular season finale, Antwon Blake forced and then recovered a fumble in to help the Steelers secure victory over Cincinnati and in the process bring home another AFC North crown.
Blake’s development was strong enough that the Steelers let Brice McCain bolt to Miami even with the full knowledge that a massive Cortez Allen reclamation project was in order. Most Steelers fans will forget, but Antwon Blake shined at times in Keith Butler’s defense during 2015 (video available as of 3/3/16):
- Blake’s 70 yard pick six vs. the Chargers was critical to the Steelers victory in San Diego
- His Red Zone interception and 42 yard return should have sparked a comeback in the loss to Cincinnati
While those contributions were real, Blake struggled at other times in 2015….
The Case Against Steelers Keeping Antwon Blake
Pro Football Focus may not publish the player ratings Gospel it pretends to, but it is one of the few organizations that attempts to quantify and track the contributions of defensive players. In that light, in this age of fantasy football, their contributions are welcome.
They also provide fodder Antwon Blake’s critics:
The Steelers cornerback Antwon Blake broke PFF records for yards allowed in coverage (1,074) and missed tackels (28) this year.
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) January 4, 2016
Those are dubious records indeed, even if they do include some exaggeration. The truth is that Blake struggled. Against the Ravens in late December, Blake missed an easy tackle that allowed Baltimore to convert a third down on a drive where they eventually kicked a field goal. It would be grossly unfair to pin that embarrassing late-season loss on Blake, but that play is indicative of the troubles he had.
Given the Steelers need to bolster their secondary, Antwon Blake appears to be part of the problem, not part of the solution.
The Case for Steelers Keeping Antwon Blake
In both seasons where he got snaps in the secondary, Antwon Blake made splash plays at critical times for the Steelers. While those plays don’t negate long gains, the ability to create turnovers should not be ignored.
- While Antwon Blake is reaching free agency, he’s only been a viable player in the secondary for two seasons.
And that light, fans who cannot wait to run him out of town would do well to remember another cornerback who struggled mightily in his second season on the field and first season as a starter: William Gay.
OK, the analogy isn’t perfect, but William Gay’s first season as a starter in 2009 was arguably worse than Blake’s – and that’s before you credit Blake for the interceptions he made. Blake is still young, he still has room to grown and he knows the Steelers system.
Curtain’s Call on Steelers and Antwon Blake
The Steelers pass defense improved somewhat late in the season (Raven’s game not withstanding) and the fact that that improvement coincided with Brandon Boykin stepping in for Antwon Blake in the second halves of games does not seem to bode well for Blake.
But that everyone must take into account is the fact that Blake is perhaps the poster child for the 2015 Steelers accidental secondary.
- Antwon Blake is not and probably won’t develop into a legitimate starting NFL cornerback.
And if Antwon Blake is starting for the Steelers for any prolonged period of time in 2016, that will most likely indicate that the Steelers drive to improve the secondary has failed. But that doesn’t mean that Blake cannot contribute valuable depth to the Steelers defensive backfield and that is where fans, like it or not, should expect him to do in 2016.