Injury, departures provide opportunities to Steelers' young defensive backs
The Steelers' defense has evolved from an aging corps of venerable veterans to one with battle-tested youngsters tossed into the fray, in part, because of injuries and free agency.
Cornerback Cortez Allen landed the job at right cornerback when Keenan Lewis returned home to New Orleans to play for the Saints. In reality, he earned the job while auditioning at left cornerback after Ike Taylor suffered a season-ending right ankle injury at Baltimore in December.
Allen, a fourth-round pick in 2011, will have plenty of competition during the preseason, including seven-year veteran William Gay, who relinquished the right cornerback job to Lewis when he bolted for Arizona one year after replacing injury-riddled Bryant McFadden two years ago.
“It's just how things transpired,” said Allen, whose sore knee forced him to sit out the first day of practice in pads Monday. “I don't think it's a coincidence, but rather the way things went. It's matter of circumstance and timing.”
Talent matters, too.
Allen is the likely opening-day starter, mostly because of his versatility. Allen would be the fourth different starter at right corner in four seasons.
“I wish that wasn't the case,” defensive backs coach Carnell Lake said. “Fortunately, we've been able to manage it. My concern right now is the depth behind the starters.
“Cortez is getting better. He adds an extra element to the position because he's played nickel the past two years.”
Allen struggled some in man coverage but had two interceptions. He was more consistent and reliable against the run and totaled 44 tackles, including a season-high eight in the season finale against Cleveland.
“I'll approach it as providing the Steelers with whatever they need out of me,” Allen said. “I think I'm equally effective as a run stopper and pass defender. I can do whatever they ask me to do. They drafted for me a reason, and I've given them confidence that I can do anything they put in front of me.”
Until Taylor's injury, he was the only fixture at either corner the past three seasons. Taylor, in his 11th season, is confident Allen can handle the job.
“In respect to injuries, that's the way the game goes,” Taylor said. “The situation is something we can't control. You have to understand the business is like that. I've got a lot of faith in Cortez.”
Allen started three of the last four games in 2012, but he saw considerable time as a nickel back and on special teams. There's little room to err with a long list of challengers — Josh Victorian, DeMarcus Van Dyke, Curtis Brown, rookie Terry Hawthorne and Isaiah Green — awaiting a chance.
Allen and Gay will enter the first preseason game against the New York Giants with the spotlight on them. Lake and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will have greater demands on both to make game-changing plays.
“Everyone talks about the big plays, but we've been No. 1 the past couple of years and we're still striving,” Taylor said. “We know creating turnovers will be a key for us.”
Taylor said Gay's return adds experience and confidence in the secondary.
“We have a special group where you can plug somebody in there and they'll be ready to go,” said Gay, who was released by Arizona after one season. “That's what you want in a secondary because you don't know about injuries.
“It's cool to have new faces, but you always got Ike on the other side. If we get consistent play, then that's what we're looking for.”