Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson, Josh Norman, Xavier Rhodes. Do these names ring a bell? They should. If you're a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, you've likely had a moment where you've dreamt of having one of them in the black and gold. What if I told you that Pittsburgh isn't far off from having an elite corner, though? It's true, they're very close. What does Steelers CB Ross Cockrell have in common with the all-pro cornerbacks of the NFL? They all shadow opposing teams' top receivers. To everyone's surprise, Cockrell has shadowed top receivers out wide on a near weekly basis thus far, and has fared well.
While the Steelers rank 26th against the pass, their ranking doesn't tell the full story.
Week 1 @ Washington
Passing Yards Allowed: 329
WR1: DeSean Jackson - 102 yards
Week 2 vs Cincinnati
Passing Yards Allowed: 366
WR1: AJ Green - 38 yards
Week 3 @ Philadelphia
Passing Yards Allowed: 301
WR1: Jordan Matthews - 19 yards, 1 touchdown
Week 4 vs Kansas City
Passing Yards Allowed: 287
WR1: Jeremy Maclin - 78 yards
Week 5 vs New York Jets
Passing Yards Allowed: 255
WR1: Brandon Marshall - 114 yards, 1 touchdown
Week 6 @ Miami
Passing Yards Allowed: 252
WR1: Jarvis Landry - 91 yards*
*Not shadowed by Cockrell -- Landry played a lot of snaps in the slot
Week 7 vs New England
Passing Yards Allowed: 222
WR1: Julian Edelman - 60 yards
While the total passing yards allowed are less than ideal, Cockrell has done an impressive job taming teams' top receivers. Aside from Brandon Marshall and DeSean Jackson (who gained 1/3 of his total yards on one single play, with Cockrell not covering him), yardage has not come easy. Wide receivers that are atop their team's depth chart have only scored twice total against Cockrell and the Steelers. Covering AJ Green is one of the toughest tasks in the National Football League, but #31 made it look easy. Green was seemingly ineffective the entire game, as Cockrell shadowed him the full 60 minutes, allowing only 38 yards.
In Pro Football Focus' top defensive performance ratings for each team, Ross has finished top-3 in four out of seven games. Cockrell sits at 7th place on the team with 25 tackles, but leads the team in pass deflections with 7. You can't rack up the tackles if you're not allowing your opponent to catch the ball.
The lack of turnovers for the Pittsburgh Steelers is to blame for Ross Cockrell being so under-appreciated. Shutting down opposing receivers often goes unnoticed by the average viewer. What earns players media attention and being the topic of discussions on ESPN? Turnovers. Give Cockrell a couple of interceptions, and all of a sudden he's being mentioned in the same sentence as Marcus Peters, Josh Norman, Xavier Rhodes and company. Even though he is super stingy yardage-wise, Cockrell is missing a couple of big plays.
While he has been held without a single turnover in 2016, Cockrell showed flashes of a true playmaker last season. The Duke product had two interceptions and one forced fumble in his 2015 campaign, and hopes to top those numbers this season. With nine games left in the regular season, there is still plenty of time for him to achieve this missing piece.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have managed to take a Buffalo Bills practice squad player, and turned him into one of the most underrated cornerbacks in the NFL. The production levels are no fluke, and at the age of 25, should only continue to get better. So when you talk down on the Pittsburgh Steelers pass defense, do so with an asterisk.