By Cian Fahey
William Gay is officially no longer a Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback, there is a gulf that needs filling in the team\’s secondary. Gay may not have been a fan-favorite in Pittsburgh, but he did have an impressive season last year while playing a versatile role.
Gay started outside in the team\’s base defense, but moved to the slot in nickel packages as Keenan Lewis moved outside. Lewis should step into Gay\’s starting role outside, but the nickel corner position will now need to be filled by one of the team\’s rookies from last season.
Despite the fact that Curtis Brown was expected to contribute more early on, and was drafted higher, it was a development prospect from Citadel drafted in the fourth round who added a spark to the Steelers\’ secondary last year as the dime back.
Cortez Allen came out of college as a young physical corner in the mold of an Ike Taylor or Keenan Lewis but was expected to take time to adjust to being a professional. By no means has he established himself just yet, but his rookie season was full of promise which should excite the Steelers fans ahead of his second season.
Ahead of his second season, let\’s take a quick look back at the tape on Allen from last season. More specifically, lets look at the two biggest games Allen played in as a rookie:
Week 8 v. New England Patriots:
Rob Gronkowski\’s first target went straight out of bounds without an opportunity for him to catch the ball, nonetheless, Tom Brady had nowhere to throw the ball because of the excellent coverage of Allen.
Brady came back to Gronkowski only a few plays later as Gronkowski ran an eight yard out route. Gronkowski was open, but Allen was in the area and Brady overthrew his tight end.
In the third quarter, Gronkowski got his first reception. With 10 yards needed for a first down, Allen aggressively stuck to the chest of the tight end and never let him reach the sticks. Gronkwoski caught the ball and was knocked sideways by Allen to force the Patriots to punt.
While Allen wasn\’t in coverage on Gronkowski, he had his longest reception of the game, to that point, with a 19-yard sprint down the sideline.
In the fourth quarter, Gronkowski\’s first reception came when the Patriots lined up in a bunch formation to the left. The Steelers were in man coverage which allowed Gronkowski to get open in the flat. As soon as he caught the ball Allen had caught up to him however and dragged him to the ground after a 10 yard gain. Gronkowski was able to gain forward momentum with his sheer bulk, but he wasn\’t escaping Allen in coverage down the field.
Allen was giving Gronkowski the quick out. He played inside technique when Brady looked his way in the fourth quarter giving up 10 yards for a first down once again. Considering how much of a gamebreaker Gronkowski is, that is not a bad decision.
Gronkowski had an eight yard reception short of the endzone when matched up with Ryan Mundy.
The Patriots tight end, and the focal point of their offense, had seven receptions for 94 yards and no touchdowns. While Allen sometimes had safety help over the top, for the most part he was in single coverage with the tight end playing aggressive press coverage. When Allen was covering him, he had 28 yards and two first downs on three receptions.
Over 90 yards is impressive for most tight ends, but when you can hold Gronkowski to that little impact without double covering him, then that is a major reason why the Steelers were able to overcome the Patriots this past year.
Week 9 v. Baltimore Ravens:
In the first quarter, Allen showed his ability to play a vital part of the nickel cornerback\’s role in the Steelers\’ scheme. Coming from Joe Flacco\’s blindside, Allen burst inside Vonta Leach, as Taylor took the edge, to pressure Flacco. Allen didn\’t get the sack, but he forced Flacco into an excellent throw off of his back foot down the field.
Much like the Patriots game, Allen was asked to aggressively press tight ends when they were split wide.
Against Dennis Pitta, Allen gave up a first down on his first target. Allen was forced to play off coverage as the Ravens\’ receivers bunched. He was rubbed off by a streaking receiver as Pitta went across the field. No corner would have prevented him from making the first down, Allen did excellently to prevent him from gaining more yards.
In single coverage with speedy receiver from Baltimore Torrey Smith, Allen gave up 14 yards on a double move. While he did give up the first down, Allen did brilliantly to trip Smith and prevent a sure touchdown once he had passed him. Allen showed off his agility and speed in that moment. Very few corners can keep up with Smith in the open field.
The Steelers rarely used their dime package on the Ravens\’ final game winning drive. That appears like a mistake in hindsight as Flacco picked apart the defense. Allen was left on the sidelines in favor of keeping Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons on the field.
Going forward, the Steelers\’ secondary is a lot less proven than it was last year. Presuming that Lewis emerges as the starter outside, Allen has the potential to actually improve the play in the slot for the team on passing downs.
You can follow Cian on Twitter at @Cianaf