Cortez Allen steps quietly into starting job at corner for Steelers
May 28, 2013 8:00 AM
Bob Donaldson / Post-Gazette
Steelers cornerback Cotez Allen during the team's Organized Team Activities (OTAs) at their South Side practice facilities.
Steelers cornerback Cortez Allen.
By Ed Bouchette Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It became tradition after the first week of spring drills for the Steelers' new starting cornerback to make bold predictions about himself, to forecast a Pro Bowl and great feats right away.
Keenan Lewis began that practice one year ago. Cortez Allen ended it today.
"I'm not that type to make predictions or boast about myself," Allen said as the Steelers resumed practices today with their fourth of the spring. "I'm a very humble guy. I just come to work every day and try to get better and better so I can help my team the best I can."
He plays a better game than he talks. That means he won't have to try to back up the kind of bravado his predecessor issued precisely at the same time a year ago, after just three spring practices as the Steelers' new starting cornerback paired with Ike Taylor.
"Pro Bowl," Lewis predicted for himself a year ago. "Watch out, this is going to be a big year right here."
Lewis did not make the Pro Bowl, but, in the overall scheme of things, after a slow start, he had a very good season as the Steelers' new left cornerback. It was good enough for New Orleans to sign him to a five-year contract worth $26 million.
Somehow it was not good enough for the Steelers to make him an offer to stay around longer. The reason: Cortez Allen.
While Lewis was making bold predictions a year ago, Allen was giving him a run for his money in a competition to replace the departed William Gay as the starting left corner. Lewis won, and his play upheld that decision, but no one on that coaching staff is hanging his head because Allen now is their starter, along with Taylor.
Coincidentally, Gay has returned, and the three are likely to be on the field together in some passing situations when the Steelers use five or six defensive backs.
Allen moved into the slot in those situations a year ago, joining Lewis and Taylor. He might move back to the slot when Gay comes onto the field this year because of his size, which he describes as "6 [feet] 2 and change."
"I don't know if that will be a game-plan thing as far as matchups," Allen said about moving into the slot. "Willie is where I learned a lot of it from, as well as Troy [Polamalu], Ryan [Clark] and Ike and others."
All those others might learn a thing or two from Allen when it comes to pilfering the football. It's been a large problem for a secondary that otherwise has been a reason the defense ranked No. 1 in the NFL in each of the past two seasons in fewest passing yards allowed.
The Steelers just don't produce turnovers the way they used to. They managed 11 interceptions in 2011 and of their 10 in 2012 only six came from a defensive back. Allen, though, was a turnover machine after he moved into the starting lineup at right cornerback to replace the injured Taylor late in the year. In the final two games, Allen had two interceptions (tying Clark for the most in the secondary), three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
"I think I've shown an ability to make plays in the defensive system," Allen said.
It's the kind of production Dick LeBeau and secondary coach Carnell Lake hope to see proliferate everywhere in 2013, and maybe the new starter can show the way.
"Absolutely that can change, and I'm going to do my best to be a factor in that," Allen declared in as close to a Keenan Lewis-like boast as anyone is likely to hear. "That's always our goal. We finished No. 1 in the secondary two years in row, No. 1 as a defense two years in a row. We'd like to be No. 1 in every category."
Toward that end, Lake and LeBeau had them working in practice last week on ways that might increase their football thievery.
"We're working on it everyday, doing more ball drills, more emphasis on attacking the ball so we can do better in that category," Allen said.
While Allen will move into the starting lineup to open the season just as Lewis did last year, there is a difference in the two situations. The timing for Lewis was perfect,, coming a year before his free agency as he played under a $1,260,000 tender as a restricted free agent. This is Allen's third year, and he is under contract through 2014. One good season, and he likely will get that contract extension offer from the Steelers that never came Lewis' way.
Still, it's a long way from The Citadel, where Allen attended after just one season of high school football. The Citadel is a military factory more than a football machine, and Allen became only the 13th Bulldogs player drafted into the NFL, the third-highest chosen from the South Carolina college when the Steelers drafted him in the fourth round in 2011.
The Steelers drafted another cornerback in the third round -- Curtis Brown from the more recognizable football hotbed, the University of Texas. It did not take long for Allen to surpass his draft classmate.
"Everybody had questions about what can I do as far as being from that type of league to facing opponents coming from I-A schools, the SEC, ACC, things like that," Allen said. "Football is football, and it's all about what you're willing to do and what you're willing to put into it. If you have a good foundation, good grounding, you can do anything."
He's ready to show how, without boasting about it.
A previous version of this story had an incorrect day for when the Steelers resumed practice.