First, there was a knee injury that kept Cortez Allen out for much of the preseason. Then, in the season opener against Tennessee, he sprained an ankle, which kept him out for the next two weeks and limited his effectiveness for weeks afterward.
After he was healthy enough to return to the lineup, Allen was benched in favor of veteran William Gay, who started seven games in the middle of the season.
Allen’s inaugural season as a starter did not go as planned, but he is attempting to end it with a flourish and restore confidence that he can be a starting-caliber player in the long term for the Steelers.
Allen regained his starting job three weeks ago, and Sunday against Green Bay, he provided the big-play ability the coaches believed he would bring to the defense.
“I’ve been able to be close to balls, be more consistent, be more focused and I’ve been able to make some plays,” Allen said. “I don’t think you’re ever 100 percent healthy until the season is over. Everyone plays with injuries and nicks and bruises. I think the key to it is when you’re not at your best physically, be at your best mentally and that will get you closer to a lot of things.”
Allen made one of the biggest plays of the game for the Steelers in their 38-31 victory against Green Bay, a win that kept their slim playoff hopes alive entering the regular-season finale this Sunday against the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field. Allen intercepted a Matt Flynn pass and returned it 40 yards for a touchdown and a 10-point third-quarter lead.
It was Allen’s second interception of the season, which tied him for the team lead along with Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu. He also is tied for the team lead in passes defended with 12 despite playing 350 and 400 snaps fewer than Ike Taylor and Polamalu, who also have 12 passes defended.
But much more was expected of Allen this season. One of the reasons the Steelers elected to allow Keenan Lewis to leave in free agency was their confidence in Allen, who showed a knack for being able to create turnovers late in 2012 when he intercepted two passes and forced three fumbles in the final two games.
“If you look at it statistically, if you score on defense you win about 68 percent of the games,” defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. “And if you score twice on defense you win about 98 percent of the time. Anytime the defense or special teams scores you’re really helping the team win. Those are the types of plays that contribute to a team’s success. Cortez has the speed and athletic ability to do those things.”
Allen, a fourth-round draft choice out of The Citadel in 2011, has one more year remaining after this one on his rookie contract and could be a candidate for a contract extension after the season if the Steelers are convinced he is one of their long-term answers at cornerback.
It appears the Steelers are showing faith in Allen in the ways they have used him in recent weeks. After Josh Gordon of Cleveland had 237 yards receiving against the Steelers in the first meeting between the two teams in November, LeBeau has kept Allen on the left side of the defense and Taylor on the right side.
For years, Taylor followed the other team’s top receiver around wherever he went, but LeBeau and head coach Mike Tomlin wanted to “settle the defense down” by relegating the corners to their side of the field.
That meant Allen got to cover Cincinnati’s A.J. Green, widely regarded as one of the top receivers in the NFL, when the Bengals visited Heinz Field earlier this month. And he’ll get chances to cover Gordon in the season finale.
“You do get to see a lot of the other team’s top receivers,” Allen said of the change in the defense. “When you have A.J. Greens and guys like that and teams rely heavily upon a guy that guy moves around. A.J. moves around within their offense. We both see our share of talent. But every receiver in this league is good. This is a very competitive league. When things go wrong a lot of times you beat yourself.”
LeBeau likes the direction Allen is headed.
“He has good ball skills,” LeBeau said. “He has good hand-eye coordination. He’s coming along.”
NOTES — Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who injured his knee against Green Bay, said he is “50-50” to play Sunday and said a decision won’t be made until shortly before game time. Sanders is officially listed as questionable. … Outside linebacker Jason Worilds (abdomen) also is listed as questionable. … The only player who is out for the Cleveland game is reserve linebacker Terence Garvin (knee injury). … Guard David DeCastro, who sat out practice Thursday with a back injury, said he will play and is listed as probable. … Others listed as probable include outside linebacker Jarvis Jones (illness), defensive end Brett Keisel (foot) and receiver Markus Wheaton (finger).
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.