Musical Chairs On 2013 Steelers Defense Includes Cornerback Shuffle

By Matthew Marczi

With over a third of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive and defensive starting lineups featuring new faces, the 2013 season should be interesting, if nothing else, seeing how the team renowned for its veteran presence adapts to the next generation. We have already covered seven of the eight new starters over the past two weeks, and today we conclude with perhaps the most exciting new starter, cornerback Cortez Allen.

Allen, you will remember, was drafted in 2011 in the fourth round with the idea that he would be a project due to his limited playing experience and small-school background. However, he ended up playing a bigger role amongst the team’s rookies that year than any, sans Marcus Gilbert, who was forced to start for most of the season due to Willie Colon’s injury.

He was featured most prominently in one of the team’s more memorable wins in recent years, the victory at home over the New England Patriots near the middle of the season. He saw a fair number of snaps as a dime back, primarily defending All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Although Gronkowski recorded his share of catches and yards, his impact on the game was minimal, in contrast to his three touchdowns that he had against the Steelers the year before. The game marked the beginning of Allen’s rise, which saw him inherit the nickel back role last year.

In 2013, with Keenan Lewis departing for the New Orleans Saints after one year of starting, it is now Allen’s job to man the position that has seen a revolving door of late. Opposite Ike Taylor, who has been a mainstay for around a decade in the defensive backfield, Deshea Townsend has his run for a few years. Then Bryant McFadden had his turn in 2008.

After leaving for more money, William Gay got the opportunity to start in 2009, which proved to be more than he could handle at the time. McFadden was brought back in 2010, and the team went to the Super Bowl. In 2011, Gay overtook the starting job again, this time with Lewis coming in as the outside corner in nickel packages and Gay playing the slot.

Last year was Gay’s turn to leave, bumping Lewis into the starting lineup. And after a slow start, the former third round pick finally began to show his potential, in fact becoming arguably the team’s best defensive player in stretches.

While he failed to record an interception, he led the league with 23 passes defensed. In addition, he improved his play against the run, and turned in a highly representative performance in that regard. He also gave up just one touchdown all season while battling a number of different injuries.

Lewis performed so well, in fact, that he earned the attention of several teams around the league during free agency. While it is not clear if the Steelers were ever among those teams, it may not have mattered, since Lewis seemed dead set on returning to his home town of New Orleans, where he signed a lucrative new contract in a buyer’s market for cornerbacks.

It seemed rather peculiar that the Steelers did not appear to make a play for Lewis to retain his services after finally making good on his potential in his fourth season. After all, a couple years earlier, safety Ryan Clark was on the verge of signing with the Miami Dolphins before last minute negotiations with the Steelers brought him back to the Steel City.

Some, perhaps many, will continue to question the team’s decision not to even offer Lewis a contract (assuming that that is, indeed, the case). But the consensus seems to be that Cortez Allen’s emergence and potential is what made Lewis expendable (as opposed to the irreplaceable Taylor).

After all, Allen performed admirably at worst, and skillfully at best, when he was asked to enter the starting lineup late in the season to replace Taylor for the first few starts of his career.

Perhaps the greatest sales pitch Allen could have made came during the last two games of the year, in which he forced three fumbles and picked off a pair of passes. With Allen’s size and speed, adding the playmaking potential that Lewis lacked almost made the organization’s decision for them.

Why would they pay Lewis the big money now when they feel that they have the player on the roster already on the books that they believe is worth the next big contract at the position? You can rest assured that if Allen has a representative season in 2013, he can be looking at a healthy new contract in 2014 as he enters the final year of his rookie deal.

He will, of course, have to earn that paycheck on the field this year. However, one thing he certainly cannot be questioned for is his demeanor. Coming from a strong family background and attending a military college, he has the right makeup not just for the position, but for becoming a locker room leader, in the mold of a Heath Miller.

Taken under wing by Taylor since his rookie season, consider the 2013 season his graduate year from Swaggin’ University. His varied education in the field allows him to play in nearly any scenario, from zone to man, from outside to the slot, against big bodies and small. With professors such as Carnell Lake, Troy Polamalu, Clark, and Taylor, it may not be long before he becomes the teacher for the next crop of pupils.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • alex

    great article…

    some may say that the steelers appear thin @ DB, but not to many in steeltown…Allen looks like the real deal and Gay, while not some steeler fans first choice, is a veteran returning to a system he knows, and he will improve our ST play…with young talent and a flood of experienced talent to teach them, the future looks bright…

    and then there is the OL?!

  • dgh57

    I think Cortez Allen is going to have a solid year maybe even a breakout year! He has and has shown all the physical skills needed for the position. He plays with and learns from the veterans on the team and he couldn’t ask for better coaching from Lake and Woodson. The ingredients to be a great CB are there, all is needed is for it to translate to the playing field.

  • charles

    Someone should ask Carnell Lake why they let Lewis go. He would know. Lewis himself said that the Steelers made no offer. Meanwhile, we have no choice except to trust Lake etal decision. The NFL has been trending toward larger cornerbacks to be able to cover TEs with good hands or the Calvin Johnson type recievers.

  • Jazz

    To be honest, this could be Ike Taylor’s final season in Pittsburgh, especially if Allen has a huge breakout season. They will not pay Ike Taylor the type of money he is receiving on his current contract. He will be 33 or 34 by the end of the season. I can see the Steelers offering him a one or two year contract beyond 2013 if he stays healthy. Besides, Ike does take care of his body very well during the offseason. I think Cortez Allen will start slow, then gain speed like a freight train does, I really like this kid. I’ve followed him since his Senior year at the Citadel. Training Camp Battles I will pay close attention to later this month:
    The Steelers are Transitioning; they might not be rebuilding, but they are Transitioning, I don’t care what Tomlin or Colbert says.
    “Are You Ready For Some Football” Go Steelers!!

  • SteelSpine

    Good catch & points & suggestion: Ask insteada the usual speculation crap. Or ask Colbert or any FO, tho such positions usually give company lines which in this case would be change topic away from the leaver, to say how good Cortez can become. But Cortez is only one CB, so Cortez shouldn’t be the only answer to why didn’t offer market value to Keenan. Anyone needs more than 1 CB to cover multiple taller receivers examples you mentioned, Cortez could get market value elsewhere after this season, & Ike cant play forever.

    Some fans gonna say the reason is someone said Keenan wanted to play elsewhere. But that’s not the question, The question is why didn’t Steelers offer market value. Could speculate the same everyone speculated last year which is what MattMarczi said here, which is another player who doesn’t even have a next contract yet (Cortez) could be just as good as Keenan. Or, I could believe reason might be simply lacked cap space at that time. But still wouldn’t have hurt to ask each FO person why didn’t you offer market value to Ike. Insteada just speculating.

  • cencalsteeler

    Allen seems to have taken a page out of Charles Tillmans book. The last few games last season, I noticed him attacking the ball in the receivers hands, either stripping or punching it out, continuing to be aggressive even if his receiver makes the catch.
    Most db’s are two dimensional, they defend the pass and they tackle. Allen seems to have added that needed third dimension to his arsenal which hopefully leads to more turnovers.

  • SteelSpine

    Yep. I too remember Cortez had all the tools needed, physically, but also I figured mentally too because from military school Citadel. He was still avail in mid-rd of draft because small school, but tall lanky w all the tools that’s why draft that & groom him, & that all went as-planned. I actually thot Cortez coulda been moved to FS last year to help there because Cortez is rangy & has enough physicalness for FS. But of-course need him at CB now especially because if Ike gets dinged we have no other CB w size to cover physical receivers.

    Re offering Cortez next contract: I think fans on this site discussed that out well long ago which is for this guy we cant repeat a Keenan which is wait til end of Cortez’ last season because he’ll get offered market value elsewhere, & Steelers strongpoint isn’t to outbid other teams. Yeah Steelers have outbid for some of their own guys in the past, but is anyone confident Steelers would outbid all teams next offseason for what would probly be the top free agent at a position.

  • Matthew Marczi

    You can’t exactly just ring them on the phone or shoot them an e-mail. How many people do you think Kevin Colbert is willing to sit down and talk with to answer questions for an article? The only thing I’m afforded is speculation, and I do with it what I can. I wish I could offer you more than that, but I never claimed to have access beyond that.

    Besides, this article, and the previous seven articles I’ve written, were primarily concerned with what the Steelers are looking to replace and what they are looking to replace them with, not necessarily how or why they are replacing those pieces. In this instance, it doesn’t really matter why Keenan Lewis is no longer on the team. All that matters is that he’s gone for the purposes of the article.

  • Steves

    Jame Harriston had the same Iron Arm and would knock the ball out of the QB’s hands, besides the sack.

  • joed32

    Some say they should have signed Lewis and cut Ike. I don’t agree since Lewis only had one good year and had attitude problems early in his career. So what if they kept Ike and started Allen over Lewis. Would Lewis have accepted that or gone into a pouting mode. It’s pretty clear that the FO wanted Allen to start ahead of him and that’s why they didn’t pay him.

  • cencalsteeler

    Funny, I’ve often wondered if that move will ever be penalized or banned. In regards to Tillman, he has that move mastered. I can see him chasing a defender, zeroing in on that football the way a boxer zeros in on someone’s head. Problem is, if he misses, isn’t that assault?

  • JohnnyV1

    Let’s just hope that, if Cortez Allen plays at least as well as Lewis did last year, they keep him w/ a new contract. Good CB’s don’t grow on trees in this league that continues to focus on the pass.

  • Jason White

    Im excited to see what Cortez Allen will do as a starter this year but for the future I can’t wait to see what Terry Hawthorne can provide down the road. I think he can be the future opposite Allen. I just hope he makes the roster and they don’t try to stash him on the practice squad.

  • NimbusHex

    I really like Allen, and I think he has the big play ability that Lewis didn’t, but I think Lewis was a lot more consistent in pass coverage. My worry is that while he may provide more interceptions than Lewis, he’s also going to get burnt more. I’ve always been of the opinion that it’s better to have someone who’s consistently in position to make a play rather than someone who’s either going to make the play or get burnt trying, which is why I’ve always loved Taylor. Maybe I’m completely off base with Allen, but if I’m not, it will at least put that preference to the test.

  • SteelSpine

    Understandable. I wasn’t referring to you Matt to ask anyone for this article, sorry it that appears that way but all I meant to refer to was there were so many months since last season ended & there were plenty of reporters who did have access to interviewing. Add to that, at end of last season, whether to re-sign Keenan was the biggest topic (Harrison 2nd-biggest because we knew Harrison would have to take a pay cut to be kept). Someday an answer will come out, & til then I agree it’s water under the bridge.

  • SteelSpine

    That all makes sense, plus I recall Lewis’s early years in Tomlin’s doghouse. I think the debate is based on any team needs 3 CBs, & the minute Ike or Cortez (or god-forbid both our CBs) is out hurt for more than a game this year, we’ll be left with LeBeau having to perform miracles.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Jim Wexell recently posted a question and answer session with Lake. Wexell asked him if Tomlin was waiting for Lewis to sit out practices in training camp while he was injured so that Cortez could step in. Lake just chuckled and said he’s not going to comment on that, although earlier he did say that he thought Cortez could’ve started last year and that it was Ike and Keenan keeping him from doing so. I’m not entirely sure what all of that means, but I thought it was interesting nonetheless. Certainly there were people, possibly some even in the organization, pulling for Cortez to beat out Lewis last training camp.

  • StarSpangledSteeler

    I gotta agree with SteelSpine on this one. I don’t understand why the Steelers didn’t play Keenan sooner. I don’t understand why they refused to start him over Gay. I don’t understand why they didn’t put him in dime packages (man-to-man on the TE). I don’t understand why they didn’t offer him a contract earlier.

    I realize Keenan and Tomlin butted heads. But they needed to get past that. I don’t care whose fault it was. Their “drama” hurt the team.

    People say we didn’t need Keenan because we had Cortez. That is insane. You don’t play the game with 1 CB. You need 3 quality CBs. You don’t hang on to high priced fading veterans and let a young tall strong fast physical CB go.

  • Stevie

    Where else could you get paid millions to do, that if you did on the streets you would be thrown in jail for?

  • Stevie

    You just answered your own question. Lewis and Tomlin butted heads, thus they didn’t offer him a contract.

  • Christopher Wilkes

    I was never a fan of Lewis. He had stiff hips and no ball skills. Those 2 factors led to 1 career int. DBs don’t make the Pro Bowl or the Hall of Fame for batting down passes or making tackles. I think it’s hilarious how many Steeler fans thought resigning him was the offseasons #1 priority, but the Steelers didn’t even offer him a contract.

  • StarSpangledSteeler

    Ben and Haley butted heads. But they worked (are working) through it. That was my point. But thank you for your input.

  • StarSpangledSteeler

    I agree with you that Lewis has limited ball skills. But you appear to be completely dismissing all of his positive traits just because he doesn’t catch INT’s? If that’s the case, let’s cut Ike as well. Lewis was our most physical CB. He has the ability to jam receivers and disrupt their routes. He has much faster deep speed than people give him credit for. Covering Wallace every day in practice will do that. Richard Sherman (Seahawks) called him one of the best and most underrated CBs in the NFL. I’ll take Sherman’s evaluation over yours any day.

    You cite that Lewis is not a “pro bowler” as if that is a requirement to make our roster. The Steelers rarely employ pro bowl CBs. (Not since Rod Woodson I believe). But remember, Lewis was not seeking pro bowl money. He signed for less than Ike (who has never made a pro bowl in 9 years). Lewis has only been starting for 2 years. He showed great improvement under Lake and will continue to improve. He may get to the pro bowl some day for another team. But even if he doesn’t, he’s a helluva lot better option than Willie Gay. This is a case where the coach’s personality conflict with a player has hurt our roster talent-wise. Cowher had his favorites and Tomlin has his. Guys who were lacking in talent but for whatever reason the coaches liked them. It’s part of the game.

    To say we didn’t have enough cap room to keep Lewis is a reasonable argument (although I believe we could’ve made room). But to try and say Lewis wasn’t talented enough to keep on our team is not accurate.

  • Christopher Wilkes

    I didn’t say he wasn’t a solid corner. I think he played very well last year, but after seeing Cortez play well too I personally didn’t want to see the Steelers resign him, and I’m glad they didn’t. 5 years/26 mil. is not a small investment. Most Steeler fans thought he was the #1 priority, and I simply never agreed with that, but of course I wanted the Steelers to stop putting money into the defense for once, so we can take advantage of Ben while he’s still around. Keenan has his positives, no doubt, but obviously his negatives and how that fit into the 2013 Steelers moving forward outweighed them when it came to the possibility of resigning him. To suggest the only reason he’s not on this team anymore is because of a personality conflict with the coach in not accurate.

  • StarSpangledSteeler

    Okay. That makes more sense. I totally agree with idea of focusing more resources on offense. If we had lost Lewis, but used that money to sign FA vet LT Jake Long, I would’ve been completely supportive.


    I guess it’s the same on every team, but we Steeler fans love to kick players on the way out…lol.

    Under the watch of coach Lake, Lewis grew into a very good man CB…combining great size, and very good closing speed made him a top FA and that’s why the Saints paid him so much money.

    Allen did push him to the end LY for the starting job…he played well in the slot and I think that was enough to be content and not splurge on Lewis. I wouldv’e preferred Lewis, and Allen, but to much cap money is tied up in Ike.