The great thing about the NFL is that there are so many positions that every year, there is almost always at least one player who has a breakout year on every team, no matter how good or bad the team is. This is one part in a 32 part segment detailing one potential breakout player for the 2013 NFL season on each NFL team (rookies don’t count). For the Pittsburgh Steelers, that player is cornerback Cortez Allen.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have largely been known for their defense over their history, especially over the last decade. Since defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau returned to the Steelers in 2004, the Steelers have had 6 top-3 scoring defenses in 9 seasons. Even last year when they didn’t, they still ranked a very impressive 6th in scoring defense and surrendered the fewest yards in the NFL. It’s very telling that a season like that could be considered a “down” year for this Steeler defense.
One of the aspects of their defense that doesn’t get enough credit is their secondary. Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark are among the best safety duos in the NFL (when healthy) and have been for a few years. Ike Taylor is not frequently mentioned among the top cornerbacks in the league, but he’s been a very consistent #1 cornerback for them.
Opposite him, the Steelers have had several different cornerbacks, but they’ve always held up in coverage. A testament to the Steelers’ greatness, when these cornerbacks move on to other team, they don’t play as well as they did in Pittsburgh and several like Bryant McFadden and William Gay end up returning. Dick LeBeau and his defensive coaching staff deserve a lot of credit for getting the most out of players and the front office deserves a lot of credit for identifying talented players who fit their scheme.
This off-season, the Steelers lost starting cornerback Keenan Lewis, a very important part of their defense last season. Lewis parlayed that strong season into a 5 year, 26 million dollar deal with the New Orleans Saints. However, as often is the case with the Steelers, they have a talented in house replacement who can make them forget all about Lewis. That player is 3rd year cornerback Cortez Allen, a 2011 4th round pick.
Allen served as the Steelers’ 3rd cornerback last year, coming into the game in sub packages and covering the slot. He played well, allowing 45 catches on 77 attempts (58.4%) for 448 yards (5.8 YPA), 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 9 passes and committing 3 penalties. Because of this, he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 17th ranked cornerback, 14th in terms of pure coverage, despite playing just 563 snaps, fewer than everyone ranked higher than him. He also ranked 14th among eligible cornerbacks in QB rating allowed.
This season, he’ll move to the outside, while still moving inside to the slot in 3 cornerback sets, and there’s reason to believe he could be even better. Not only will he be in his 3rd year, frequently a breakout season for young players, he actually played better on the outside than the slot last year. On the slot, he allowed 26 catches for 237 yards on 43 attempts, intercepting a pass and not allowing a touchdown. On the outside, he allowed 19 catches on 34 attempts for 211 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception.
At 6-1 197 with 4.51 speed and 32 ¼ inch arms, his skill set seems more suited to success on the outside than success on the slot anyway. More time on the outside this year could really do him some good and he could end up finishing the year as one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL. His versatility will also allow him to be a huge asset to the Steelers’ secondary. With William Gay coming back as the 3rd cornerback, playing on the outside when Allen moves to the slot, the Steelers’ secondary is once again in good hands.