When the Pittsburgh Steelers began the regular season last a year ago, they did so with five safeties on the roster—but not the five safeties that they wanted to have.
At the time, Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith, whose practice squad eligibility was up, made the 53-man roster as a special teams player, although he did see a few snaps on defense early in the year before being released.
Why was he there in the first place? Because Will Allen did too well replacing Troy Polamalu the year before for Mike Tomlin, and he was able to parlay that fill-in job for a chance at a starting position with the Dallas Cowboys.
Fortunately for the Steelers, that dream didn’t last long, and Pittsburgh re-signed him soon after the Cowboys sent him packing. After a short while, when rookie safety Shamarko Thomas went down with an ankle injury, Allen stepped in seamlessly as the sixth defensive back in the dime and quarters packages.
And with Allen back into the picture, the Steelers were only more encouraged to keep six defensive backs on the field.
Over the last seven games, he averaged just under 50 snaps per game, while the defense as a whole averaged about 72 snaps, meaning that Allen was playing in excess of two-thirds of the team’s snaps once he got back into the rotation.
It’s no surprise that the Steelers were quick to re-sign him early this offseason, even when they already have two promising young reserve safeties. It is worth noting that he was re-signed before the team added Mike Mitchell, of course, though that’s certainly not to say that it wouldn’t have happened anyway.
Before the free agency splash, there was legitimate speculation that Allen might replace Ryan Clark as the starting free safety. As it is, he is currently replacing Mitchell as the starting free safety while the latter recuperates on the PUP list from a groin injury.
Back in the spring, Allen also worked at strong safety opposite Mitchell while Polamalu was out west working out on his own before rejoining the team for minicamp. His experience and versatility make him a valued asset for Tomlin, who once coached him way back when as the defensive backs coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The eighth-year head coach was asked about what it means to have a player like Allen in the building, who can step in at either safety position or in sub-packages and contribute above the line cold off the bench, and you can bet he spoke positively the veteran defensive back.
“He’s what a 10-plus-year positional player should be about”, Tomlin said. “He’s extremely low-maintenance. He’s position flexible; he plays strong, he plays free, he plays in a variety of the sub-package positions that we have—half-safety, half-linebacker, if you will. He’s a smart guy who doesn’t require a bunch of maintenance, so he has value”.
Allen has played over 800 snaps for Pittsburgh over the last two seasons, and it seems that he’ll continue to get his reps as the dime back this year, even if the Steelers don’t use the six defensive back look as much with their rebuilt front seven. If there should be an injury to either safety, he can step right in and keep the team competitive at the back end.
Many, including myself, have wondered, given the depth at safety and Allen’s age—not to mention the fact that they went into the season without him last year—if the veteran safety was at risk of missing the cut this year. But if there’s anything we’ve learned so far this offseason, it’s that the Steelers still place great value on their third safety, even if he’s not the future of the position.