Steelers' Allen prepares for strong challenge
Cortez Allen marvels at the sometimes-immeasurable sweat equity veteran cornerback Ike Taylor invests into his offseason workouts. It's a punishing exercise of physical toughness designed to strengthen a player mentally.
Allen, entering his third season with the Steelers, is physically gifted. He has spent the past three months perfecting his coverage skills and understanding the complexities of Dick LeBeau's pass defense.
More important, he has prepared his body and mind for a grueling training camp and 16-game season. Even Taylor, who suffered a season-ending ankle fracture, couldn't make it through the 2012 season.
“Ike is one of the hardest workers I've met,” said Allen, who sustained a hip flexor and groin injury in Week 14 against San Diego. “Seeing the way he does things is something that I would one day like to model. I'm getting a close-up view of what it takes to play 10 years in this league.
“We know what's required in the scheme of what we do. We know how to push one another. We have to coach each other. We're making one another and the team better as a whole.”
The 6-foot-1, 195-pound cornerback already is expected to slide into the starting role at right corner — a slot left vacant by the departure of Keenan Lewis, who signed a free-agent contract with New Orleans.
Allen, though, is hesitant to pencil himself into the lineup on a defense that led the NFL in total defense (275.8 yards) and pass defense (185.2) the past two seasons. Besides, he'll have plenty of competition when training camp begins in mid-July at Saint Vincent College.
“If you don't want to take on this kind of challenge, then you're playing the wrong game, and you'll never be as good as you can be,” said Allen, a 2011 third-round pick from The Citadel. “When the opportunity presents itself, my preparation and mindset will be ready.”
The Steelers brought back William Gay, who was the 2011 starter at right cornerback, before spending the 2012 season with Arizona. Curtis Brown, DeMarcus van Dyke and Josh Victoria all had their chances to audition last season.
Perhaps Allen's biggest threat is fifth-round draft pick Terry Hawthorne. Defensive back coach Carnell Lake is impressed with the Illinois product's potential upside, speed, size and coverage ability.
Lake and LeBeau are excited about Hawthorne and Shamarko Thomas, a versatile defensive back drafted in the fourth round from Syracuse. Hawthorne and Thomas will be given a chance to see if they have a nose for the ball.
“(Hawthorne) doesn't mind tackling, and he can play press coverage well, kind of the same way as an Ike Taylor,” Lake said.
But Allen welcomes the challenge. After all, training camp might be a breeze compared to what Taylor has put him through at the Wild World of Sports training facility in Orlando, Fla.
“It's about what I expect from myself, and I try not to get into who will start,” Allen said. “I'm focusing on what I need to do to get better. I feel like everything will take care of itself if I can handle what I need to do personally.
“I believe I have the ability to make plays and help the team any way I can. I've shown the coaches I can be that guy they drafted.”
The Steelers relied heavily on Allen when Taylor and Lewis were sidelined with injuries. Brown, drafted ahead of Allen in 2011, hasn't been nearly as effective, partly because of injuries.
“We're hoping that Curtis can turn the corner right now,” Lake said.
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.
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