Rookies growing up on the job for Steelers
Curtis Brown hears the horror stories all the time. Whenever the Pittsburgh Steelers rookie cornerback reaches out to one of his old teammates at Texas playing elsewhere in the NFL, he's invariably met with tales of stolen playbooks, big egos and even bigger growing pains.
When his friends ask the third-round draft pick how it's going while trying to fit in on one of the league's most veteran-laden secondaries, he's not quite sure what to say.
Does he tell them about trading TV documentaries with All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu? Does he tell them about bending cornerback Ike Taylor's ear for hours on end about Pittsburgh's intricate coverage schemes?
Does he tell them other than carrying off shoulder pads a couple of times during training camp he hasn't been treated as if he's a rookie by his teammates even when he plays like one?
''It's very surprising,'' Brown said. ''I didn't think it was going to be like this, my room in particular. But I can sit and have a conversation with any of the guys and they're going to listen.''
It's an attitude that permeates the Steelers locker room. Pittsburgh rarely dabbles in the big-time free agent market and prefers to use the draft to find talented players and bring them along slowly.
Heading into the final quarter of their first season, the new kids are starting to make an impact for the streaking Steelers (9-3), who host Cleveland (4-8) on Thursday night.
Brown and Allen are becoming special teams standouts. Heyward is fitting in nicely into the defensive line rotation while Saunders is taking some of the pressure off veteran tight end Heath Miller.
''Like Coach (Mike Tomlin) always says, the standard is the standard,'' Allen said. ''If he asks me to be out there, I've got to do the job he's asked me to do. If you're a rookie or a veteran, the job still has to be done and that's the approach I have to take.''
It's one that's passed down from one wave of players to the next, from defensive end Aaron Smith to Brett Keisel to Ziggy Hood to Heyward, a first-round pick out of Ohio State who blocked a field goal in last week's 35-7 win over Cincinnati.
''At the beginning of the year these guys had confidence in us and we're just going right with it,'' Heyward said. ''They've been very receptive toward us and I know Wes has taken a lot from Heath and Cortez has taken a lot from Ike and I've taken it from guys like Zig.''
While Heyward was considered a can't-miss prospect, the other three have taken more roundabout routes to the field.
Saunders went undrafted following a tumultuous career at South Carolina, but blocked his way onto the team and scored his first touchdown in a 13-9 win over Kansas City two weeks ago. Allen, a fourth-round pick out of The Citadel, was injured during most of training camp and had to sweat out final cuts, but has played so well he's even getting some time in various nickel and dime packages.
''You want to compete with your teammates and you want to get better,'' Allen said. ''The worst thing you can do is panic and take that approach. All you can do is get better and be ready when that time comes.''
It's a lesson Brown learned while spending camp dealing with a balky hamstring and his own reticence. The soft-spoken 22-year-old found it difficult to speak up in meetings, but has come out of his shell thanks to the guidance of players such as Polamalu.
Though he has yet to see time at his natural position, he's making the kind of splash plays on special teams that get noticed. Brown spun away from two blockers on a punt late in the first half against the Bengals and slammed returner Brandon Tate to the ground at the Cincinnati 13. The Bengals threw three straight incompletions to force a punt that Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown took back 60 yards for a touchdown.
The player who had trouble staying healthy in camp has become invaluable on kick coverage and earned Tomlin's respect in the process.
''He's got a different sense of urgency than most,'' Tomlin said. ''His hair is on fire. This guy competes when he's in position to make plays. He competes when he is in less than ideal positions, double-teams.''
Brown hopes to get in on a few defensive snaps at some point this season, though he'll have to sneak past Allen on the depth chart to do it. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau turned to Allen when the Steelers played New England in October hoping the athletic 6-foot-1, 198-pound rookie could help slow down the Patriots' potent offense.
Allen held his own in a convincing 25-17 victory and has become a permanent part of the team's dime package when opponents go to a four-wideout set.
''We've always thought that he had good ability,'' LeBeau said. ''We always liked his size to speed ratio and he's got an innate feel for the ball. Those are the kinds of guys, when they display something that you really can't teach, we like to see where they end up.''
More often than not, at least in Pittsburgh, then end up on the field.