Steelers' Allen poised to assume CB role
The competition at one of the most important positions on defense is nearly over just as Steelers training camp winds down Saturday at St. Vincent.
It's at left cornerback, the job filled last season by Keenan Lewis before he signed a $26 million contract with the Saints.
Finally, a winner is emerging in the battle between Cortez Allen and … Cortez Allen?
Allen, unable to practice since having knee surgery two weeks ago, took part Friday in a pass-coverage drill against receivers, one in which pads weren't worn and there was no contact. But it was a major step forward for Allen, who, as usual, is fighting with himself — mostly to stay healthy — as the season nears.
“He looked good. His movement looks good. His quickness looks good,” secondary coach Carnell Lake said. “The medical staff is being cautious, and hopefully we'll get him back soon. But he'll probably take a little while to get the rust off.”
Lake said he believes Allen had the ability to start in what was the NFL's top pass-coverage unit last season. But asked what it's been like to spend most of camp preparing without one of the most important players on defense, Lake said, “I haven't had him the last three camps” — a reference to Allen's multitude of summertime injuries.
“The most important thing is to have him back for the start of the season,” said Lake, who doesn't know whether Allen will play in any preseason games. “He's a very intelligent guy, and I don't worry about him from a classroom-understanding part. What we have to do is make sure we can go into the season with a healthy Cortez Allen.”
Last season, the Steelers were comfortable starting Lewis opposite longtime starter Ike Taylor at corner, after William Gay and Bryant McFadden played the position. But when Taylor was injured late in the season, Allen stepped in and displayed the kind of skill — two interceptions and a forced fumble against the Bengals and two more forced fumbles in the season-ending game against Cleveland — that can make a cornerback into a star.
Being tight against the salary cap, the Steelers didn't have financial flexibility to sign a high-priced defensive back to replace Lewis, although they did bring back Gay from the Cardinals. But as Lake said, there was no need to look elsewhere with Allen around.
“He has good hands, good vision, and he doesn't panic,” Lake said. “He's real comfortable around the ball. I can't teach him that.”
Still, it hasn't been easy for the secondary to prepare as a group for Tennessee on Sept. 8 with Allen out so long. The corners and safeties need on-field time to get accustomed to each other's tendencies.
“It's very disappointing, but sometimes that's the cards you're dealt,” said Allen, a fourth-round pick from The Citadel in 2011. “I'm trying not to get down about things like that. I just try to focus on the positives — and that's to get mentally more prepared and make the best out of this situation.”
He hasn't used his down time to watch film on any regular-season opponents. Rather, he attends his position meetings and tries to help the less-experienced cornerbacks.
Allen believes that getting on the field late last season enabled him to build the foundation to become a regular.
“That comes with experience. That comes with confidence in your knowledge of your game and your assignments,” Allen said. “The more you know about what you do, the faster you can play and the more effective you can be. As the season got on, I got more and more wisdom about how to do the things they were asking of me.”
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is excited about Allen's ability to knock the ball loose, especially given the recent scarcity of turnovers: only 35 generated in the past two seasons by the NFL's top-ranked defense.
“It's an emphasis from him every year, but this year I feel highly confident in our ability to be in the top end in that category,” Allen said. “We work on it each day and continue to build on it and put ourselves in a better position to make those plays.”
They'll be in a better position when Allen is finally in the position he's supposed to be.
The one he had to fight with himself to win.