Pittsburgh Steelers corner back Cortez Allen had what can generously be described as a "forgettable season". Few would argue that statement -- even Allen, himself.
Hopes were high for the 2011 fourth-round draft pick heading into the 2014 season. The team had just given him a five-year, $26 million dollar extension during the off-season, and he had been named the starter opposite longtime Steeler defensive back Ike Taylor. However, he was picked on early and often by opposing quarterbacks, giving up touchdowns and earning flags for holding and interference along the way. Following the Steelers' victory over the Indianapolis Colts, during which Allen gave up two touchdowns and earned a then-league-leading ninth penalty despite no longer even being a starter, he was, for all intents and purposes, shut down.
A little over three weeks later he was placed in injured reserve, perhaps more out of mercy than anything else.
The obvious problems were confidence and technique. He was failing to read the cues opposing receivers were giving him, and it trended from bad to worse as the season progressed. Hesitation to act became obvious, and that translated to him being out of position often on deep plays.
The good news, though, is Allen acknowledges the shortcomings in his play.
According to Steelers.com, Allen said after his 2014 exit interview, "You have to remember, in a sense, what transpires in order to grow from it. If I go into it blind and not knowing, then how can I fix what I need to if I don’t assess what happened? I’ll do that and I’ll make the corrections."
Clearly, he is aware of the problems he faced in 2014. The question, now, is how will he return to the form which won him the starting job in the first place?
In preparing for the 2015 season, Allen's focus will likely be on getting back to basics. His mistakes in 2014 were often in the simplest of situations, like letting a receiver get behind him without safety help over the top. Sometimes, as in the Colts game, he was in position but failed to time his jump properly -- or even look like he was trying.
Sometimes it was taking bad angles in the running game, as he did against the Browns in week six. As the last line of defense on a sweep to the right, Allen was slow to react to the play, then pushed too far upfield before flattening his angle. He had no chance of making a tackle near the goal line.
The bad angles weren't limited to the running game. Against the Ravens, a simple curl five yards down field resulted in a 30-yard gain -- fifteen on the play, plus another 15 for Allen grabbing the receiver's facemask after whiffing the initial tackle attempt.
It's not as if there weren't positive moments on which to build. While his interception of Tampa Bay Buccaneer's quarterback Mike Glennon was about as big of a gimme as any player will see, he followed it up a week later by picking off a Blake Bortles deep ball by aggressively playing the ball, knowing he had help from free safety Mike Mitchell. On top of that, he defended 11 passes while only playing significant time in seven games, easily the best average of his career.
It's not as if he didn't have someone to learn from close at hand. In 2006, late in a dreadfully bad followup season to a victory in Super Bowl XL, Ike Taylor found himself benched due to lapses in technique and judgement. While he wasn't the only one playing poorly -- collectively, the team was experiencing a Super Bowl "hangover" -- he was made the example.
Taylor returned in 2007 and had his best statistical season, posting three interceptions, a touchdown, a fumble force and recovery, and one sack. If Allen truly wants to turn it around, he need not look any further than Taylor for guidance.
In the end, Allen's mistakes were largely a result of small technical failures, but at the NFL level those errors can result in big gains or points for the other team. The keys for him this year will be to focus on being technically sound, reading receivers better and trusting in the same abilities that got him the starting job in the first place.
Once believed to be the next up-and-coming ball hawk in Pittsburgh, the onus is on Allen to reclaim such a title, and a starting job, in 2015.