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Steelers CB Ross Cockrell turned practice reps vs. Antonio Brown into a regular role on the defense

When Ross Cockrell first showed up in Pittsburgh, he took every rep he could against the game's best wide receiver, and it paid off in a big way.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

When the Pittsburgh Steelers acquired cornerback Ross Cockrell off waivers after his release from the Buffalo Bills, most fans said, "Who?!". What originally was thought as just another capable body who could play special teams has turned into a regular on the defensive side of the ball.

How did it happen? According to Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review it started with Cockrell taking as many, if not all, of his scout team defensive practice reps against Antonio Brown. Volunteering to go against the best wide receiver in the league is a gutsy move, and one which defensive coordinator Keith Butler recognized.

Nonetheless, Cockrell down plays such an act as having anything to do with the chance he has earned the past two weeks wearing a black and gold uniform.

"Honestly, it really wasn't on purpose," Cockrell said. "I was on the scout team and trying to provide a good look to get ready for the Patriots. Malcolm Butler is an up-and-coming corner, so I was just trying to provide the best look I could."

What was the outcome of such a decision?

"I was going 100 percent, and he (Antonio Brown) was just being him," Cockrell said.

Clearly the second year defensive back from Duke had his hands full with Brown, and he isn't alone in such a category. Brown makes a living out of making defenders look foolish. Not to mention his overall competitiveness regardless of the situation he finds himself in.

"I don't take it easy on anybody." said Brown.

It wasn't long before Cockrell went from the scout team defense, to getting repetitions with the starters as the third cornerback in a rotation missing Cortez Allen. Allen has yet to return to the lineup after Week 1, and Cockrell's play has to have the organization thinking he can take his time.

In Cockrell's time on the field, the past three weeks, he has made the best of his chance with 7 combined tackles, with two turnovers against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 4 (an interception and a fumble recovery).

The Steelers have whiffed on many fourth round defensive backs under Mike Tomlin, but even though Cockrell wasn't drafted by Pittsburgh, he is a fourth rounder who could stick with the black and gold if his play continues to improve. Cockrell signed a one-year deal before the season began, making him a restricted free agent after the season. With Antwon Blake, William Gay and Brandon Boykin all free agents at the end of the year, Cockrell looks as if he could be a key cog in the team's plans for their secondary for years to come.