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Ravens vs. Steelers: Antwon Blake's heart and challenge both far exceed his height

To look at Steelers' cornerback Antwon Blake is to see a short player. But to consider this something that actually matters to him is to make a mistake.

Justin K. Aller

Steelers cornerback Antwon Blake aimed high. The receiver towered over him both with his feet on the ground and while in the air. A physical advantage even the average-sized defensive back could see.

But it wasn't about the size of the defensive back in the leap, it was about the size of the leap in the defensive back.

Blake, at 5-foot-8, isn't what one would refer to as a prototypical player. He doesn't look the part; the part looks at him and laughs. He was too small to be drafted and too short to make the Jaguars as an undrafted free-agent. Too near the ground to last for a second season with the Steelers.

It wasn't for a lack of trying, either. The Steelers signed cornerback Cortez Allen to an extension this off-season. That wasn't until after the team signed Brice McCain and drafted Shaquille Richardson. To varying degrees, all of those players have height advantages over Blake.

Yet he's the latest player to leap over Allen on the Steelers' depth chart. As the big-money cornerback will see his snaps decrease to a depth lower than Blake's height in inches, Blake has the chance to rise in respectability on Sunday when the Steelers host the Baltimore Ravens in Week 9.

It started in Week 8. Blake was the one on the field in the fourth quarter when the Steelers defeated the Colts, grabbing the game-clinching interception. He was the one Steelers coach Mike Tomlin turned to in looking for someone - anyone - to help slow down the awesome passing force of Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton and Donte Moncrief.

If his size is a legitimate issue, then he's the most naive and overlooked player in the NFL. He doesn't play like he's short; he plays only as if everyone else thinks he's short - fierce and aggressive. If Blake has made mistakes this season, they're due to his over-aggression. He's been beaten on deep-outs a few times in his few snaps at cornerback, but he wasn't beaten when Moncrief flew down the offensive right side of the field, desperately looking to give the Colts another score. Blake's Seabiscuit to Moncrief's War Admiral stature didn't matter. He got himself in good position and he played the receiver, not the ball, turning in time to find it. It was Blake, not the rookie phenom, who read the angle better, working to get himself under Moncrief and to time his leap much better than Moncrief.

Blake came down with the ball, sat up and held his arms off to the side. A more comfortable stance, but one that suggested, even if size does matter, it's not just the vertical aspect. The width of his heart and the depth of his knowledge had put him in position to make a big play.

Had Cortez Allen taken the same posture after one of four big passing plays he allowed in the same game, he would have been curled in a ball on the grass. Appearing to resemble a picket fence during a hurricane, Allen's benching is both sad and frustrating. The organization had put so much into Allen as their future, main cornerback on a team that's known for having scheme-strong if talent-light cornerbacks. Allen's size and athleticism gave rise to the belief he was the next in a long, but still un-refreshed, line of middle-round defensive picks who have flourished in Pittsburgh.

Instead, Allen has become a shell of the player who notched five takeaways in the final two games of the 2012 season. He hasn't even reached the point where he was in 2013, and it appears that blistering run at the end of his second season was more mirage than reality.

He's a broken player. Carrying with him a divine physical makeup but with the kind of negative body language seen only outside of an emergency room or cemetary.

But where Allen's slump wallows is where Blake's shining opportunity is born. He didn't need time to warm up, like a former Steelers' receiver used to say before taking his talents to South Beach (and never was heard from again). Blake got on the field, and he made a play. While Allen has made those plays, it seems like he's already been forgotten. Blake's posture on the ground after his first interception as a Steeler was more like "remember this."

Blake worked to belong. It seems he has that unshakable and borderline-irrational confidence of a successful NFL cornerback. What Allen lost is what Blake is channeling heading into this game - perhaps the biggest Steelers vs. Ravens game in the last three years.

These games are usually tightly played and fairly conservative. When deep passes are attempted, they're all or nothing. The Ravens are fully aware of the rules favoring defensive backs, and they aren't afraid to launch deep throws on second and third and long, looking to draw a flag.

Confidence for Blake is good and discipline will be better. That message was no doubt stressed this week, considering the litany of hands-to-the-face penalties charged on Steelers' defensive backs in Week 8 (and all year, really). Among the other charges he'll have to carry in this game is Steve Smith, a rejuvenated and angry player known for pushing off a bit himself.

Smith's biggest advantage has been the Antwon Blake-sized chip on his shoulder. The greatest thing the Carolina Panthers - his former team of 12 seasons, three All-Pro years and five Pro-Bowl years - ever did for him was to tell him he couldn't play anymore.

Blake certainly is not to cornerbacks as Smith is to wide receivers. But Blake likely knows why Smith is the way he is. It's very likely Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco will survey the field during Sunday Night Football and see something that tells him Smith will have a large amount of space working against Blake - the cornerback of whom the Ravens know the least. He'll likely remember it for later or flip into something that will take advantage of one of the game's best deep receivers in a game won by the ability to make big plays, or maybe more appropriately, lost due to inability to prevent big plays.

Hearts will sink seeing Flacco unleash the trebuchet he calls a right arm. Smith will burn down the field, tracking the ball like the Hall of Fame player he's been throughout his career. Size won't matter in the matchup. Smith isn't all that tall himself.

It'll be about the size of the leap in the player, not the size of the player in the leap.