By Matthew Marczi
Over the past four games, Pittsburgh Steelers safety Will Allen has re-emerged within the defense due to the injury to rookie safety Shamarko Thomas. Allen started seven games for the team last year due to injury, but has now become a feature in the teams quarters package, which they use frequently.
In fact, he has logged more total defensive snaps already in the last four games than Thomas had in his eight games played.
The two, by the way, have combined to play nearly 400 snaps, indicating just how frequently the team uses six defensive backs. Don’t forget that Robert Golden also logged 50 snaps before Allen was brought back and while cornerback Cortez Allen was ailing in the early portions of the season.
That should theoretically mean that the Steelers now have at least seven defensive backs that they feel they can trust. But will they use all seven of them, and if so, how will they divide those snaps?
Thomas returned from his injury against the Baltimore Ravens, but did not log any snaps on defense, being limited to special teams play. Yet he seemed to be an integral part of a growing defensive secondary before going down with his injury.
Allen, the veteran safety, has generally played very well in his absence, though he had a couple of miscommunications in the last game. Still, he has an interception, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery that was nearly returned for a touchdown in recent weeks on a defense that has been hurting for splash plays.
One wonders if Allen will keep Thomas off the field, barring injury, for the remainder of the season. Rookies rarely play on the Steelers’ defense, and they already have two starting at linebacker.
Still, Thomas offers a versatility that others in the secondary lack, namely true man coverage ability from the safety position. In fact, he was being used as the nickel back early in the season with Golden as the third safety while Cortez Allen was injured, and only moved back as the third safety when Allen returned.
Now that both reserve safeties are healthy, will we start to see a platoon at the dime back position, with Thomas coming in during situations that require more of a close coverage role, or will the Steelers stay the course with Allen unless and until he proves to be a liability in one way or another?
The Steelers have begun to spell Vince Williams on occasion with the more mobile and coverage-sound Terence Garvin, who has nine snaps in the last two weeks. Neither rookie linebacker plays frequently at this point, but the platoon example could translate to the dime role given specific game scenarios. Either way, it’s probably a good problem to have.