Steelers' cornerback Allen learns valuable lessons
By Ralph N. Paulk
Published: Friday, Dec. 20, 2013, 10:48 p.m.
It seems that whenever Cortez Allen is about to turn the corner, something trips him up.
The Steelers third-year cornerback was supposed to step in for the departed Keenan Lewis. But a series of nagging injuries and a breakdown in fundamentals swung the gate open for veteran William Gay.
Allen, a 6-foot-1 corner with exceptional closing speed, spent much of this season watching and learning. An injury in the season opener paved the way for Gay to start two games, but by Week 6 Allen had lost the job.
Again, it seemed he hadn't fulfilled the lofty expectations.
“I don't get into what everyone else expects of me because I expect a lot out of myself,” said Allen, who will make his sixth start this season when the Steelers face the Green Bay Packers on Sunday at Lambeau Field. “I expect to make plays. I know I have a long way to go, but I'm working on it every day.
“I always took the approach that I'm the starter. So when it happened, it wasn't a surprise. It's like when (cornerback) Ike (Taylor) went down at the end of last year, I had to be ready. When it's your opportunity, you have to make the most of it.”
For Allen, his demotion proved invaluable. He polished his coverage skills and tackled better while playing a key role in the Steelers' nickel and dime packages.
“The season didn't start the way I wanted it to, but as the season progressed, things improved,” said Allen, who has 38 tackles, one interception and 10 pass breakups. “I try to work on my weaknesses every day. It's a process, and I never want to feel comfortable.
“Even if I hadn't been replaced, I was going to learn regardless. I just saw it as an opportunity to grow as a person and as a football player. I was given time to reflect at what I needed to do to get better.
“It was a valuable experience for me because I was still in position to work on my craft and keep my mind sharp on being an inside and outside defender,” he added. “It was just a change in my responsibilities.”
Allen quickly discovered upon his return against Minnesota in Week 4 just how much he had to learn. He was beaten often by the Vikings' receivers — especially Greg Jennings, who slipped out of his grasp for a 70-yard touchdown that ignited a first-half explosion in Minnesota's 34-27 victory in London.
Allen acknowledged that the missed tackle on Jennings exposed a weakness that had been prevalent since the Steelers selected him in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL Draft.
“That one stung the most,” he recalled. “The more consistent I am, the closer I get to playing the way I'm capable.”
Yet, that one missed tackle appeared to motivate Allen. He has missed few tackles since. He has improved in man coverage, particularly in the red zone, too.
As a result, defensive backs coach Carnell Lake and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau are confident Allen is ready to nail down the job at left cornerback. The Citadel graduate started the past two games and put forth his best efforts as a pro.
Finally, it seems, Allen is comfortable in his role as a starter.
“I'm still able to evaluate myself in game situations,” he said. “I learned a lot playing with (Gay) because I'm backing him (at the nickel position).”
Said Gay: “We take pride in calling ourselves a family. We want to make sure we pass on all the knowledge we can.”
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.
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