Safeties in the NFL commonly have two words in their position title.
Either "free" or "strong" appears before "safety." Will Allen just isn't sure which one he is.
When asked, the Steelers veteran dual-use safety laughed, and seemed genuine when he replied, "I don't know."
If you watch him within the Steelers defense, it's tough to determine an answer other than "both." Same goes for the other Steelers safety, Ryan Clark. They both flash to the line of scrimmage on the strong and weak sides. They both stay back in deep coverage. They both cover the slot, blitz and make plays outside the numbers.
"I guess you could say (I play) both," Allen said. "I've been trained to play both, which has been been helping us in certain packages. If we can keep that going, it keeps people guessing."
Maybe there is something to a classic expression used often by Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, "the standard is the standard."
Troy Polamalu has long been masquerading as a strong safety despite taking on traits of several positions - sometimes at the same time. Few in the history of the game have been as versatile and disruptive as Polamalu, who can start a play on the edge of the line of scrimmage and finish the play in deep center field, 30 yards off the ball.
He can't truly be called a strong safety, either, so when Allen entered the starting lineup, perhaps the defense didn't miss a whole lot. And perhaps the reason the defense played less-than-Steeler-like in four of their first five games was because Allen wasn't in there immediately.
Ryan Mundy started in place of Ryan Clark in Week 1 at Denver (Clark has a blood disorder that reacts negatively to high altitudes, he does not play in Denver), then in Weeks 2-3 for Polamalu. After trying for part of the first quarter, Polamalu re-injured his calf, knocking him out of their Week 5 game against Philadelphia.
Allen made his first start as a Steeler against Tennessee in Week 6 - a game that had him in single high coverage in most of it. Clark played more of the strong safety, and the Steelers' cornerbacks struggled to defend Tennessee's receivers outside the numbers. The Titans took that all the way to a 26-23 upset win.
The sluggish looking Steelers defense rode that into Cincinnati in basically a must-win road game against the Bengals. After giving up an 80-yard, 15-play drive, Allen said things started to get real.
"We realized we can't win this way," Allen said. "It's important to get us over hump. We had to get out of the hole we'd been digging."
The Bengals did basically nothing the rest of the game. The Redskins and the Giants did little more than the Bengals did. With Allen now playing all over, similarly to how Clark was being used, opposing quarterbacks looked confused. Terms like "free" and "strong" were arbitrary - individual titles were not defining the Steelers' defenders. In turn, individuals - both the ones on the field and the ones not playing - were no longer defining the Steelers' defense.
Blitzes started landing (to Allen's credit, he forced a fumble against Tennessee, and his blitz led directly to a Lawrence Timmons interception in the same game).
The Steelers defense returned to the level it has been cemented in over the last decade. It all started after that 15 play drive by Cincinnati.
That win got us to 3-3 (on the year)," Allen said. "We knew we couldn't go to 2-4, that would have made the season a lot harder."
Allen said he didn't know why the team made the switch from Mundy to him against Tennessee ("they never told me why, just that I was going to start."). It took a little bit for the defense to gel with a personnel group that's largely changed over from its Super Bowl run in 2010.
It's still not where Allen thinks it will be, though. The missing component from a lights-out defense and the defense the Steelers are currently playing is turnovers. The Steelers only have eight takeaways - four interceptions and four fumble recoveries - in their eight games this year. They only had 15 in 2011, while still managing to lead the league in scoring and yards against. "We are getting better (from the start of the year)," Allen said. "But to play lights-out, to reach our ceiling, we can get more turnovers. We don't have many interceptions and fumbles forced. We're getting teams off the field on third downs and in the red zone, but we can totally change game around with turnovers."
Allen spoke in a hushed but resolute tone, much more bookwormy than jockish, spouting off statistics of the Steelers as well as their opponents as if he was debating them on a radio call-in show. His vocal demeanor was quiet, battling through a cold, but his voice sped up as he burned through Pittsburgh's defensive ranks with spot-on accuracy.
It was clear, if the whole of the Steelers locker room is not fully locked into its stats, then Allen is the exception.
Perhaps that's why he's blending in well into the Polamalu-less Steelers deep secondary. He knows enough about where his team is, he's able to apply a simple but granular set of objectives. He said he's preparation as a starter is a bit more intense, but other than that, he spoke universally about his focus.
"To be honest, I didn't really even think about it. I just wanted to go out and play fast and have fun. I didn't think about anything else.
"I had a mentality to practice harder and push guys around me to make the game easier for us."
He rattled off a list of stats, but the two he pointed out often was the Steelers' top-ranked pass and overall defense positions.
Don't mistake him for being complacent, though.
"We always can get better," Allen said. "No one is satisfied with where we are. Always climbing to be better. We've seen how hard we work, we want to be the best, we want to hoist the Lombardi."
Getting better starts against a Kansas City Chiefs team that's turning the ball over at a prolific level. Their eye-popping -29 turnover margin is the result of both several turnovers a game as well as an inability to create turnovers themselves. As Allen pointed out, the Steelers need to get the ball back to their offense more if they wish to be a lights-out defense.
Allen doesn't subscribe to the idea of past results being indicative of future success, though. He sees the Chiefs as a versatile and capable offensive team, but one that's made mistakes in its games this year.
"Their offensive game plan against Baltimore was to run the ball and it worked," he said. "They rushed for around 200 yards, I think (214 to be exact). They went to work with (Jamaal) Charles. They're trying to get him and (Dexter) McCluster more in the game. Then, against San Diego, they passed a lot (QB Matt Cassel was 19-for-29 and completed eight passes to WR Dwayne Bowe).
"They have a lot of talent and ability. They're an NFL team. They are making a lot of mistakes, and if we can be opportunistic, we can get some turnovers in this game."
That determination as well as his sharp statistical acumen helped Allen create the Will Allen Foundation - a charitable organization that he started in 2008 when he was in Tampa Bay and carried with him to Pittsburgh. There's also a chapter in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio.
The group - which is currently holding a fundraiser raffle in which Steelers fans can enter to win tickets to the upcoming Steelers/Ravens game Nov. 18 at Heinz Field - works with youth in the area, including those at North Hills High School in the Pittsburgh area and Wayne High School in Dayton.
It's aim is as broad as Allen's memory. In no particular order, Allen said, in one breath, the group helps kids in regards to, "business, life situations, how to balance a checkbook, general money issues, credit loans, taxes, meetings, interviews, ACT and SAT preparation, science and technology, ways in which kids can help preserve their community, green living and the things associated with that, dealing with adversity and other things life may throw your way."
Tickets for the raffle are $2 each (minimum purchase of five), and can be purchased through his web site.
Terms like "strong" and "free" aren't the best to describe Allen. There just isn't a "versatile" or a "dynamic" or a "insane memory for statistics" safety. He's just "Steelers safety Will Allen."
And that's good enough for the top-ranked Steelers' defense.