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Carnell Lake: Cortez Allen must improve his focus

Steelers' defensive backs' coach, Carnell Lake, sees potential in Cortez Allen, but also sees the young player's biggest hurdle to be maintaining focus against the league's better receivers.

Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

Though Cortez Allen leads the team in turnovers with two interceptions, he's still not seen as a consistent enough player for the Pittsburgh Steelers' needs in the starting cornerback position, especially with Ike Taylor out of the lineup with a broken forearm.

This week, Allen looks to be playing the nickelback position for the defense as Brice McCain (the only other Steelers player with an interception this season) joins William Gay as the two starting cornerbacks tonight against the Houston Texans. Though Allen has drawn the ire of fans for being beaten too many times, especially in the team's loss to the Cleveland Browns last week, Pittsburgh's defensive backs' coach and former safety, Carnell Lake, thinks Allen still has the potential to be a good cornerback for the Steelers.

Despite this assessment, Lake also sees Allen's shortcomings as an NFL player centering around his lack of focus against the wide variety of different receivers and tight ends with whom he matches up week to week.

"I think that's the only way to be as a corner because as soon as you lapse for a minute somebody's making a play on you," Lake said according to ESPN's Scott Brown.  "'Tez has a long stride, he's playing against a variety of receivers from tall and big to short and quick. 'Tez has to learn to hone his game in to be able to have the depth to say, ‘OK, this is how I can play successfully against this type of receiver and this is how I have to change my game to be successful against this type of receiver.' You've got a Steve Smith or you've got a Megatron [Calvin Johnson]. That's a totally different set of skills you need to start developing. But there are some fundamentals that you can carry between those two types of receivers. He needs to strengthen those fundamental skills and also have more tools in his toolbox."

Lake sees the reason for Allen's lack of focus might stem from how athletic he is and how he used to rely on his athleticism to make plays while in college. While Allen's athleticism and size is an asset, it could be what's letting him feel too comfortable and thus overlook the subtleties needed to be a good NFL cornerback.

"I think his athleticism at that level, playing for The Citadel, he could kind of get away and not really lock in because he just had so much more talent than a lot of people. He could put it on auto pilot and still make a lot of plays. Up here, playing against receivers like [Antonio] Brown, you've really got to focus because as soon as you think they're one way they're another way and that's how they play the game."

Allen has the potential to be a playmaker for the Pittsburgh secondary. His size and overall athleticism give him an opportunity to match up against the larger tight ends that are becoming more prominent targets in the league, as well as against the speedier receivers. Allen's recent relegation in the team's depth chart is only part of his development, and Lake sees a chance that he could become one of the better players at his position in the NFL.

"I think he's still learning the game. I think he's got a lot more in him just from an understanding standpoint. Athletically I'm not really concerned so much. I think he has ability to tie that with the understanding of football in general and what offenses are trying to do. With his hands and his instincts for the ball, I'm hoping when it comes together it's going to be something where people go, ‘Wow, this is a pretty good corner.'"

Allen was a fourth-round pick from the Steelers' 2011 draft who surpassed the cornerback taken by the Steelers in the round preceding him, Curtis Brown. His play has been streaky, with times where he gives up plays due to soft coverage, misjudges passes and fails in run support. But there are also times when he can be relied on to limit opponents' big plays and even to make interceptions. Prior to the Browns game, Allen had recorded an interception in his last two games.

If Allen can learn what Lake is trying to teach him and increase the intensity of his focus and study as an NFL defensive back, his streaks of good play could very well develop into consistently reliable performances. That's something the ailing Steelers' secondary needs, especially without a strong pass rush and with its best cornerback in Ike Taylor not in the lineup.