By Matthew Marczi
The football statistics website Pro Football Focus published an article yesterday deeming third year cornerback Cortez Allen the ‘Secret Superstar’ for the Pittsburgh Steelers for the 2013 season. Of course, this is a series of articles that the website does for every team, and I think that it is safe to say that there is not a secret ‘superstar’ on every team around the league.
On the surface, Allen seems to be a solid, logical choice on the Steelers’ roster. Other more or less new starters, such as David DeCastro, Mike Adams, or Jason Worilds (or even Jarvis Jones) would all be potential candidates, but Allen, of all players named, has had the clearest and steepest upward trajectory.
Drafted in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL Draft out of The Citadel, Allen was expected to be a project with high upside. It helped little that the Steelers double dipped at the position that year, also selecting cornerback Curtis Brown a round earlier.
Partially due to a hamstring injury that saw him miss much of his rookie training camp, there was serious speculation that Allen could even be slated for a redshirt season on the practice squad. It did not take long for him to make an impact, however, after being pitted against New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and minimizing him in the game a year after he nearly single-handedly defeated the Steelers.
A year later, Allen was promoted to nickelback with the departure of William Gay, seeing his playing time rise significantly. His snap count from year one to year two leaped from 60 to 563, playing on 55% of the team’s total defensive snaps for the season.
Of course, a good bulk of those snaps came late in the year after top cornerback Ike Taylor suffered what ultimately turned out to be a season-ending leg injury, thrusting Allen into the starting lineup. In total, he took 277 snaps at the outside corner slot, where he is expected to see most of his playing time as a full-time starter in 2013.
By general impression, Cortez Allen is regarded as an up and comer, but what do the numbers say about his game? The two interceptions and three forced fumbles in the last two games certainly stick out like a sore thumb, but in doing so suggests that such playmaking is an outlier. After all, he did not cause a single turnover in 498 snaps in his career prior to those two games.
Yes, five turnovers in 125 snaps is certainly an impressive ratio of one in every 25 snaps, but zero turnovers in 498 snaps cannot be discounted. Even though Allen has shown the potential to be a playmaker, it would be foolish to bank on that potential as a sure thing. It would be more useful to look at some more longitudinal figures.
According to Pro Football Focus, Allen gave up a reception on 60.5% of his targets, though only 55.9% on the outside. He was targeted 77 times last year, giving up just 448 yards, or 5.82 yards per attempt in his coverage. In addition, he allowed just one touchdown all season, or only 1.3% of all targets.
His ten yards per reception is also a worthy number to consider, as is his 1.32 yards per coverage snap. Indeed, by the statistics site’s reckoning, Allen’s 2012 performance was worth $4.9 million, for a “Performance Based Value” differential of +$4.3.
When you factor in his ten pass defenses with his two interceptions, Allen’s 15.6% defense rate is notable, with five of them coming in the last two games of the year (although Pro Football Focus notes only nine passes defensed, NFL.com lists ten).
As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, Allen has consistently been on an upward trajectory. He entered a non-football college with less than ideal experience and was drafted as a project, only to contribute early as a rookie on a defense that is allergic to rookies while bypassing his more polished, and more highly drafted, teammate.
He moved up to nickelback in his second season and ended the year as a starter where he finished off the campaign with a torrent of forced fumbles and interceptions. The finale to his sophomore year so encouraged the organization that they felt comfortable enough with the prospect of him as a starter to not even make a contract offer to Keenan Lewis, who signed with his hometown New Orleans Saints.
In that sense, Taylor’s injury was a blessing in disguise, because it gave the front office a chance to see what the defense would look like with Allen on the outside, and for a full game. They saw that Allen offered a playmaking potential that had been missing amongst the team’s cornerbacks for years.
Allen gives the team a player with the size to cover tight ends and the speed to cover inside receivers, which is why there are reports that Allen will continue to play the slot this year. His rare combination of attributes and attitude certainly gives him the potential to become a key moving part in the Steelers’ defense, and to be the Secret Superstar that Pro Football Focus projects him to be.