With injuries piling up and the playoffs falling out reach last season, Cortez Allen was given the opportunity to start for the Steelers late last season. In the last two games of the season he forced three fumbles and intercepted two passes as one of the starting cornerbacks.
Despite the Steelers collapse in the end of the season, Allen was a bright spot for a cornerback unit which had been slighted for years for a lack of depth. Keenan Lewis' departure for New Orleans means that Allen will continue to be one of the starting cornerbacks.
Only now he will be across from Ike Taylor, which is an opportunity that he did not have last season. This makes for Taylor's fourth starting companion in the past six seasons. Cortez Allen's predecessors include Deshea Townsend, William Gay and Keenan Lewis.
From these options the best statistical cornerback undoubtedly was Townsend. For almost a decade Townsend had seasons with multiple interceptions for the Steelers. Although his were not elite numbers for cornerbacks, his performance cemented him as a valuable role player in the defensive system of Pittsburgh's mastermind, Dick LeBeau.
Since Townsend the Steelers have not had a consistent performer to replace the reliable No. 26. William Gay only had three career interceptions and although two of them came in his last season with the team before he left for the Cardinals, it was obvious he was not able to fill the void Townsend left.
The Steelers' next corner to start opposite of Taylor was 2009 3rd round draft pick Keenan Lewis; although we all saw Lewis had cover skills, he only had one interception in his career with the Steelers and it came while he was the nickelback against the Kansas City Chiefs' backup, Tyler Palko. This means that within two games, Cortez Allen had a combined number of forced fumbles and interceptions that was only four less than what Lewis and Gay had produced in their entire careers with the Steelers.
Cortez Allen may finally be the turnover machine that the Steelers' defense has been looking for to compliment Taylor's shutdown corner efforts. In the limited opportunities that I have had to see him play on primary receivers, Allen looks aggressive on the ball. Although Townsend was only 5-foot-10, he still did better than Lewis who stands at 6-foot-0.
Allen is larger than both of them at 6-foot-1, putting him one inch shorter than Taylor (Gay was also 5-foot-10). Allen has the size to matchup with bigger receivers and be the physical tackling cornerback that LeBeau loves to have for his scheme. If he can be the defensive back who can jump passes--and catch the ball--he will add a dimension that last year's top passing defense in the NFL did not have.
When asked about the pressure of being a full-time starter, Allen responds: "There isn’t pressure. It’s a game I love. Being able to do this is fun. I just have to keep doing what I do. I have to work hard and give my all to this team and my teammates. Everything else will handle itself."
Sounds like this 24 year old is ready to be Tomlin's "next man up."
There's a lot to like about Allen so far, but a lot remains to be seen. Steelers fans will have to watch to see if he can provide consistent coverage throughout a full season and whether or not he can adapt to the different NFL starting wide receivers' various styles in the way that Taylor has a cornerback. However should he prove as an efficient cornerback, it may lay to rest any criticisms of Kevin Colbert for not selecting cornerbacks earlier in the draft. Allen, Taylor and Townsend were all fourth round selections, which means that the Steelers know how to find the right cornerbacks to fit their scheme without spending higher picks in the draft.