Steelers coaches confident in under-the-radar cornerback duo


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The Steelers surprised many NFL draft analysts when they waited until the fifth round to select a cornerback. Even more eyebrows were raised in the ensuing days when coaches explained the decision.

"I feel good about the cornerbacks that we have and we have more numbers there than people realize," defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "We may have great players in the building already; they just haven't had the chance to show us that they are great."

That quote, which might have been construed as hyperbole had LeBeau not been responsible for it, sent fans and reporters alike to the team media guide in search of answers.

Defensive backs coach Carnell Lake ended the suspense the next day when he singled out Antwon Blake and Brice McCain as two players he believed would provide quality depth after starters Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen and nickel corner William Gay.

Neither was with the team in training camp last summer, but they could be part of the future for the Steelers defense given the uncertainty at the position after the 2014 season.

Taylor is 34 and entering his 12th season in the league. He took a pay cut to remain with the Steelers this season. Allen enters the final season of his four-year rookie contract. The most recent player in such a position, Keenan Lewis, capitalized and signed a big free-agent contract with the Saints after a breakout fourth season. Gay enters his eighth season in the league and the second year of a three-year contract.

An opportunity could arise for one or both in 2015, or perhaps this coming season if any of the top three are injured.

"I think these guys are just getting started," Lake said of Blake and McCain. "They have the ability to cover and stay close to receivers. So for guys we've picked up in free agency that may have been overlooked in the past, I'm pretty excited about them. I think we have the ability to plug and play some of these players we've picked up."

Blake was picked up six days before the 2013 season opener against Tennessee after the Jacksonville Jaguars released him. He played mostly on special teams, but Lake saw enough in practice to believe he had someone capable of playing cornerback in the NFL.

Blake knew the coaches thought highly of him after his exit interview after last season, but he was just as surprised as the fan base when the Steelers addressed their defensive needs with a linebacker and lineman with their first two picks in the draft.

"After reading all the reports prior to the draft I thought, like everyone else, they were going to go with a corner in the first or second round," Blake said. "After they didn't, I felt like my situation became a little bit better."

The Steelers did select cornerback Shaquille Richardson in the fifth round, but it could take some time for him to develop into a contributor.

Blake had a chance to sign with the Steelers as a free agent when he was not drafted out of UTEP in 2012. He chose to sign with Jacksonville instead because he was born there and grew up rooting for the Jaguars even after his family moved to Texas.

"In hindsight, I should have come here first and become a Steeler," Blake said.

He made the Jaguars roster as a rookie, but was among their final cuts last summer. The Steelers picked him up the next day and placed him on their 53-man roster.

"It took a minute to get comfortable, about Week 5 was when I got into the groove and was consistently playing on the special teams," he said. "As far as the playbook, it was about picking up the smaller details. In the NFL, it's not always about the big picture. It's the small little things you can mess up that can change the whole dynamic of the situation."

Blake and McCain are small in stature. Both are 5 feet 9, but Lake believes their tackling ability and coverage skills are good fits for the Steelers.

McCain was drafted by Houston in the sixth round out of Utah in 2009. He signed a three-year contract before last season, but the Texans released him after a subpar 2013 season. He got acquainted with his new team at OTAs the past two weeks.

"I'm learning the Steelers way," McCain said. "I'm getting used to it and starting to get more comfortable. It's not a big difference. The terminology is different. But it's the same scheme, man-to-man and zone blitz."


Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.

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