Training camp began with the question of whether Cortez Allen or Curtis Brown would be the team's nickel cornerback in 2012. It quickly became apparent Allen was the hands-down winner, so the question turned to whether Allen could beat out projected starter Keenan Lewis.
After four preseason games and training camp, it doesn't appear there is much difference between the two in terms of physical ability. The edge will go to Lewis for the starting position, though, for no more of a reason than a lack of polish on Allen.
Allen covers the slot in the nickel package, and that can be a little more complicated in a zone cover scheme. He has defenders covering zones on either side of him, as opposed to covering the outside, where the defender has a zone to the inside, and a sideline to the outside.
This isn't to say either player is head-and-shoulders above the other in terms of physicality or mental aptitude. Purely from a physical standpoint, though, they're both where they should be. Lewis looks a bit ahead of Allen in terms of turning and running with receivers up and down the field. Along with that, Lewis has improved his tackling ability, and it looks like he will have a strong season.
Allen's potential is impressive, as he's showing instinctive coverage skills worthy of a high level starter. The flaws in his game right now are workable with experience, and should this battle continue next season (Lewis is an unrestricted free agent in 2012), it wouldn't be surprising to see Allen overtake Lewis.
For now, though, both players are essentially interchangeable, confirming defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's earlier proclamation that the two of them are both starters, even if only one is on the field for the first play. With the amount of passing in the NFL today, the nickel package has practically become the Steelers base defensive formation, and in many ways, Allen is more of a starter than LB Larry Foote (the player removed in the nickel for Allen). However one defines a starter, though, is beside the point. Lewis will be the 2CB on the depth chart, but both he and Allen will play at a high level this year, opposite Ike Taylor.