PITTSBURGH (AP) The Pittsburgh Steelers secondary calls it ”the island.” And it can be an unflinching, unforgiving place.
Stay out there on the fringes of the defense trying to keep opposing receivers in check long enough and bad things happen. Developing the short-term memory required to get over them, however, isn’t an innate talent but a necessary survival skill.
One Cortez Allen is still working on.
The Steelers signed the fourth-year cornerback to a $25-million contract on the eve of the season opener, a financial statement from the front office that Allen was ready to officially supplant veteran Ike Taylor as the team’s top defensive back.
Two months into the new deal, Allen’s quiet confidence is shaken, his spot in the starting lineup is in doubt and the path back uncertain. While the polite, reserved former cadet at The Citadel has kept a low profile heading into a crucial showdown against Baltimore on Sunday, his teammates are stumping for patience as Allen tries to break out of a prolonged funk.
”Everybody goes through it,” veteran Ike Taylor said. ”I went through it. Deucey (William Gay) went through it. Now, he’s going through it. He’s got to fight his way out.”
At the moment, it’s a decidedly uphill battle.
Rock bottom may have come last Sunday, when Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck targeted Allen repeatedly while throwing for 400 yards in a 51-34 loss. Luck hit tight end Dwayne Allen for a 21-yard touchdown behind Allen in the second quarter and found Donte Moncrief for a 31-yard score over Allen’s outstretched arms in the third, part of a nightmarish day in which Allen was also beat for a 27-yard gain by Hakeem Nicks and drew a penalty for illegal contact, the team-high seventh flag he’s earned this season.
”He’s got to lick his wounds, roll his sleeves up and come back to work this week,” coach Mike Tomlin said. ”We’ll watch him close and expect him to do it and answer the bell that comes with putting bad stuff on tape.”
There’s plenty to go around. Allen started against the Colts but reserve Brice McCain also saw extensive playing time. McCain’s role could increase on Sunday night as the Steelers (5-3) try to avoid a season sweep at the hands of the Ravens (5-3).
Either way, Allen will likely be on the field. Tomlin expects Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco to locate Allen’s No. 28 and attack. It’s what Tomlin would do if he saw an opposing defensive back struggling.
”He better work to defend himself,” Tomlin said.
Tomlin is doing his best to keep Allen’s spirits up. He pulled Allen aside even as the big plays piled up against Indianapolis and reiterated his support for Allen both publicly and privately. Tomlin also drafted the injured Taylor – who is still working his way back from a broken right forearm – to serve as Allen’s de facto life coach.
Taylor stressed he’s ”100 percent” certain Allen will regain the form that made him the team’s best defensive back last season. When that happens, even the perpetually optimistic Taylor isn’t sure.
”What I always tell my guys at corner is that you’ve got to be honest with yourself,” Taylor said. ”There is no gray area when you play corner. Either you’re getting the job done or you’re not. So, once you establish that, everything else comes easy.”
Allen is putting in the work. He spent an extra 20 minutes on the practice field on Thursday, doing some one-on-one work against practice squad wide receiver C.J. Goodwin while third-string quarterback Landry Jones threw passes and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau watched attentively.
It was only a month ago Allen pulled down momentum-shifting interceptions in consecutive games. That’s perhaps the most befuddling aspect of his slide. It’s not like receivers are running away from him. On most plays Allen has an opportunity to make a play on the ball. He’s just not making them.
It’s an ebb and flow even the best endure. LeBeau carved out a Hall of Fame career while picking off 62 passes for the Detroit Lions from 1959-72. He was beaten far more often than he succeeded. His ability to not let one mistake bleed into the next is what set him apart. It has to be the same for Allen.
”A corner learns to live alone, and he’s got to believe in himself, just go out there and play,” LeBeau said. ”You’ve got to believe in yourself to play corner and I think (Allen) does. I have a lot of confidence in him. He’s got to produce and get out there and make some plays.”
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