Ron Cook: Blake's turnaround began vs. Bengals Saturday night
January 15, 2016 12:00 AM
Steelers DB Antwon Blake intercepts a pass Saturday night against the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.
Steelers' DB Antwon Blake intercepts a ball intended for Cincinnati's Marvin Jones in the second quarter of the AFC Wild Card game Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium.
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Mike Tomlin is Pittsburgh’s most maligned sports figure. Many people want him fired even when the Steelers win. Many want much worse for him when the team loses.
Antwon Blake is No. 2 on that list. I can’t remember a Steelers player who has been so widely criticized. Kordell Stewart, perhaps?
Much of the criticism of Blake has been justified. He acknowledges that. “It’s no secret I’ve been in a little bit of a slump.”
Pro Football Focus, which charts the performance of every NFL player on a play-by-play basis, ranked Blake as 117th out of 118 cornerbacks this season, ahead of the New Orleans Saints’ Brandon Browner. Its analysis determined Blake has allowed 1,074 receiving yards, the most by any cornerback since it started keeping track of such minutia in 2007. The accuracy of that number is hard to determine. Often, it’s difficult to tell who is responsible for a pass-coverage breakdown. But if your eyes tell you Blake has not had a good season, you are not alone. He’s a big reason the Steelers’ pass defense ranked 30th in the league and was especially susceptible to the deep ball.
But your eyes also should have told you Blake played his best game Saturday night in the wild-card win against the Cincinnati Bengals. His second-quarter interception wasn’t as significant as the two fumbles forced by teammate Ryan Shazier in the second half, but it did set up a field goal and the Steelers’ 3-0 lead. He was covering star wide receiver A.J. Green and reacted quickly to AJ McCarron’s badly underthrown pass. He returned the interception 35 yards.
It was Blake’s third interception of the season. He picked off San Diego’s Philip Rivers Oct. 12 and returned the interception 70 yards for a touchdown in a 24-20 win. He also intercepted Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton Nov. 1 in the end zone in a game the Steelers lost, 16-10. He returned that interception 42 yards.
“Coach T always harps on looking back for the ball and being in good enough position to make a play,” Blake said. “I saw it [Saturday night] before the receiver did. I was able to adjust to it and get back to the ball before anyone else. You’ve got to be able to make those plays when they come to you.”
When the Steelers played in Cincinnati Dec. 13, Blake was beaten by Green for a 66-yard touchdown. He said Green did not have a catch Saturday night when he was covering him.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say it was my best game, but it was one of my best games in a while.”
Blake is thinking that performance was the start of bigger and better things for him. It is a nice thought. The Steelers face Peyton Manning and a strong group of Denver receivers Sunday in an AFC divisional round playoff game in Denver.
“There’s no better time to get hot than in the playoffs,” Blake said. “I’m definitely looking forward to building off of my arrow pointing up.”
Blake said he is as healthy as he has been this season. He did major ligament damage to his left thumb and hand Oct. 18 in a game against Arizona. He didn’t miss time but had to play with a cast. That impacted his tackling.
“That’s not any type of excuse by any means because if I’m able to go out on the field, I need to produce,” Blake said.
Blake knows no one wants to hear excuses, anyway. Especially not from him. He said he hasn’t heard the criticism, but don’t believe it. Of course, he has heard it.
“As far as the critics, those are nameless, gray faces to me. That’s just static,” Blake said.
“I’m very tough on myself. You always want to be in pursuit of greatness. Any time you feel like you’re playing below the line, you’ve got to do a little soul-searching and go out there and find ways to make it happen. Once people start beating you down and things aren’t going right, it’s easy for a lot of people to shut it down. That’s not me.”
Blake said he appreciates the support from his coaches, who continue to start him with top cornerback Will Gay. Brandon Boykin and Ross Cockrell also are in the cornerback rotation. Gay played 72 snaps against the Bengals, Blake 63, Boykin 62 and Cockrell 10.
Blake said he also values counsel from former teammate Ike Taylor, whom he described as “a big mentor.” “He always told me, ‘You’ve got to keep going, keep working,’ ” Blake said. “Out at that corner, everybody is looking at you. If something doesn’t go your way, the whole world sees it and everybody has an opinion about it.”
The Steelers are hoping Blake has a better game Sunday than Taylor did when the Steelers met the Broncos in Denver in the playoffs after the 2011 season. Taylor was beaten in overtime for the winning 80-yard touchdown pass from Tim Tebow to Demaryius Thomas.
Blake said he is willing to take his chances — win or lose. He didn’t quote from Theodore Roosevelt’s famous “Man in the Arena” speech, but he could have.
“It is not the critic who counts,” Roosevelt said. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, who at the best knows in the end of the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
“I’m a professional athlete,” Blake said. “None of [the critics] are in this position. I’m sure a lot of them wish they were.”
Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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