By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH -- A main reason why the Pittsburgh Steelers defense faltered last year also could be why the unit returns to prominence this season.
With three forced fumbles and six interceptions, including a pick six, cornerback Cortez Allen was identified as a key component going into last season and paid quite well for that potential. Allen never lived up to those expectations nor the five-year, $26 million dollar contract he signed just before last season began.
Poor play from Allen and veteran Ike Taylor forced the Steelers to use unproven Antwon Blake and unheralded Brice McCain along with William Gay at cornerback. Allen was torched, subsequently benched and eventually placed on injured reserve. He has 18 starts in 40 games the past three reasons and once again enters his fifth NFL campaign as a starting cornerback for the Steelers.
"It's a new year, and all I can focus on now is what I do from here on,'' Allen said early during OTAs. "So, I just have to keep working on my fundamentals and getting better. As far as last year, that's over with. And we're working on the 2015 season. I expect to be better in all aspects.
"I'm just ready to work and excited for the opportunity to play with these guys. I can be as good as I want to be. It all depends on the amount of work that I'm willing to put in. And that's doing whatever I have to do, whatever I need to do to get better, to get better for myself and get better for my family.''
And if Allen returns to his previous level of play, he could boost the club's sagging defense that has continued to lose veteran players year after year.
"That goes for everybody,'' Allen said. "If we all can reach our full potential, there's no limit to what we can do. That's on the field and off the field and as individual people.''
With three pick-six touchdowns among his accomplishments last season, Gay is poised for another big season.
"We all need to play at a championship level,'' Gay said. "That's the only thing I'm focusing on right now. It's up to all of us to get our game going at a high level, because that's what it's going to take for us to win a championship.''
Allen seems to be the type of player who takes things in stride. You won't hear him complain, nor will he place blame on a teammate.
"I'm not that kind of guy,'' Allen said. "I'll never say: 'woe is me.' I've never been that kind of guy, and I'll never be that kind of guy. I'm going to do whatever I can to help my teammates, regardless of how I feel.''
Spending time with his teammates, on and off the field, and playing hard for them are the things that motivate Allen.
"The main thing is to just get better and continue to work,'' Allen said. "(And) I ask Coach (Carnell Lake) to help me with everything, anything that he sees or feels that I'm doing. However, big or small, I want to hear it, because I like to be coached. I have the desire to get better.
"So, I'm all for any coaching that he gives me. There were a lot of little things, the fundamental stuff. I was so critical on in college that I kind of got away from that (in the NFL). So, that's what I'm working on now, just getting back to the basics of football, techniques and stuff.''
Allen gave credit to former Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, secondary coach Lake and Taylor for his development. Taylor has spent time with the team so far during OTAs and has worked with Allen a great deal.
"Ike always emphasized to be honest with yourself and how you played, your preparation, everything you do,'' Allen said. "If you're not honest in how you correct things and lie to yourself, how can you correct things and get better? So, growing up with Ike, I learned a lot.''
If Allen returns to his past glory, he could be the shutdown corner that the Steelers covet.
"I've shown that in the past, being able to make plays on top-tier guys,'' Allen said. "I just have to do it. I just have to make sure that I'm prepared and ready and take care of the problems that I have on the field and continue to work with the blessings that I have going for me.''
If that happens, the Steelers defense could return to its past glory.