The grass started to look a little greener last week for the Steelers, and it wasn’t because of the 70 degree temps either. The team welcomed back Troy Polamalu to full practices and a green light for the game against the Ravens on Sunday. Polamalu was being revered as a shot in the arm to a defense that seemed to be a hair’s breath away from being a dominant force – no not splashy, but shut down force. As the game got underway, fortunes changed quickly once again for this Steelers team who is continually fighting off injury after injury. Ike Taylor suffered a leg/ankle injury during the first series and never returned. A full diagnosis has yet to be released by the team, but most ‘experts’ predict he will be out of the lineup 3-6 weeks. And, while most would think losing your #1 corner would spell monumental trouble for a successful playoff run, Steeler fans should take a bit of comfort knowing who will now have to step up and take Taylor’s place.
The Maturation of Cortez Allen
The 2011 4th round draft pick out of The Citadel stepped into the role of ‘#2 corner’ when Ike Taylor went down with his injury against the Ravens on Sunday. Allen split time with Keenan Lewis covering Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin. During the first half, the Ravens challenged Allen often, and Allen rose to the occasion. He broke up several passes – often having to catch up in pursuit after the ball was thrown. Allen’s style is very clear: leave some room, let the pass come in, an reach in to break up the pass even if the body is open for a hit. It was effective and seemed to frustrate the Ravens offense that they couldn’t break Allen. That didn’t stop them from trying, and in the second half, they were able to complete several bigger passes that lead to a TD and a pass interference (which was a bit of a ticky tacky call at the 10 yard line).
Some might argue that Allen (based on his performance) is not ready for that role, but I think that he fairly ready to take up the mantle. Yes, he was beat a couple of times, but he never let it get to his head. He did not grossly change his coverage and knew that what he was doing worked. Quite frankly, Ike Taylor gives up a big pass on occasion, so there’s no difference there.
Let’s look at Allen’s maturation in comparison to his positional brothers. He quickly became the favorite as the slot cover man late last season in his first season with the team. He continued that role during training camp and all through the season – and has performed very well. Allen’s maturation into the #3 guy was expedited by William Gay’s departure and Keenan Lewis’ subpar seasons. Using those two as a litmus, Allen is years ahead of their development. Look how long it took Gay to be a dependable cover corner. Look how long it took Lewis to move into the #2 role and continue to have shaky weeks. In a defense that touts a large learning curve – 3 years or longer – Allen appears to have the natural talent to swim with the big fish AND possess the brain power to ‘undertand’ Dick LeBeau’s defense. I was very pleased to see his performance last night.
Will Allen be a shut down type corner like Taylor? Eh, maybe not percentage’wise. But, I do believe his ball skills raises the chances of the Steelers picking a pass off on a deep or crossing route. Let’s give Allen the chance he seems to have earned. Facing Rivers, Dalton, Romo and Weeden I expect Allen to be challenged but come out successful. If he gets paired against Dez Bryant it will be a nail biter, but can anyone see Keenan Lewis hanging with him all game? In Allen We Trust.
The Lake Effect
I’m not talking snow. I’m talking about Steelers secondary coach, Carnell Lake. Lake signed on with the team last season as the coach, and I think he is working wonders with the new guys like Cortez Allen. How else can you explain Keenan Lewis’ ability to FINALLY cover guys at least 75% of the game? How else can you explain that both Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown are impacting the secondary and special teams at the same time? How else can you explain that Will Allen and Ryan Clark have been a force in the safety positions during Troy Polamalu’s absence almost all season? How is it that this defense has been #1 in pass defense two seasons in a row? Sure the secondary is full of talented players, but it’s Lake’s coaching that has gelled it all together. What a stroke of brilliance by the Front Office to get Lake on board.
Steelers Continued Pass Rush Success
The Steelers pass rush is starting to come around after being absent almost all season. James Harrison, as he ever creeps back to 100%, is beginning to gain back that explosiveness off the snap. He may not have all of it back, but his speed is improving as is his strength as he fights off blocks. Joe Flacco became ‘Jumpin’ Joe Flacco during the second half. The pass rush got to him a few times for sacks and hit him just after throws. This cause Unibrow Boy to get jumpy in the pocket and either rushed throws, threw off target, or a combination of both. There was one series that Lawrence Timmons began a pass rush, and fell into an open part of the pocket – either because he slipped or got hit. He landed three feet short of Flacco, but that presence of a black and gold jersey diving towards him was enough to make him throw the ball early to Smith and it was off target. If the Steelers can keep this up for the rest of the season, QB’s like Rivers and Romo will have tough days behind their line, as they habitually fold under the pressure.
So Steeler Nation, fret not with Taylor gone. Will it be a smooth ride the next four weeks? Absolutely not. But, the defense is far from dire straights as they race for the divisional title and a playoff spot.