Youngsters Allen, Brown stepping in for Taylor

The seeds for a rivalry between Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen

were planted early.

Selected one round apart by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2011

NFL draft, the cornerbacks found themselves fighting for playing

time – and a roster spot – on a defense that isn’t the easiest to

learn.

Brown, a third-round pick, played at Texas. Allen, who went a

round later, played at The Citadel, far from the bright lights of

big-time college football.

Coach Mike Tomlin admits he ”pitted” the two youngsters

against one another much the way he did with wide receivers Antonio

Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, separated by 113 picks in the 2010

draft.

The ploy worked, kind of. While the cornerbacks admit they’re

better off for having to compete with the other, there is no blood

feud, no looking over each other’s shoulder to see what the other

is doing.

”He’s probably my closest friend on the team,” Allen said.

The fact the Steelers initially rated Curtis Brown a little

higher never comes up, perhaps because both players know it’s

irrelevant. They were selected to be teammates, though that hasn’t

stopped Tomlin from using the ”two dogs, one bone” metaphor to

try to help them bring out the best in each other.

While they have, that competitiveness doesn’t carry over off the

field.

”We chill every day,” Brown said. ”We hang out together in

the offseason. We’re in it for the long run.”

One that’s starting a little sooner than planned.

Allen and Brown will see extensive playing time when the

Steelers (7-5) take on San Diego (4-8) Sunday without veteran

cornerback Ike Taylor for the first time in eight years.

Taylor is out at least two weeks with a fractured right ankle,

leaving Pittsburgh’s top-ranked pass defense very young and more

than a little fired up.

”I take the approach that you should always be prepared,”

Allen said. ”I was ready for this and I feel like the coaching

staff and my teammates are confident in me to get the job

done.”

The bigger, bulkier Allen – who at 6-foot-1 and 196 pounds is an

inch taller and 11 pounds heavier than Brown – will start at

cornerback then slide into his usual nickel spot in passing

situations while Brown replaces him on the outside.

It’s a setup both feel plays to their strengths. Brown feels

more comfortable going one-on-one on the outside, where quickness

and instincts can overcome mistakes, while Allen’s cerebral

approach makes him a perfect fit for the sometimes complex coverage

assignments.

”I’m just trying to make a name for myself at corner,” Brown

said.

He’s already on his way. Brown didn’t have time to get nervous

last Sunday when Taylor went out in the first quarter. He suddenly

found himself thrust into a critical spot in the most important

game of the season.

Don’t think the Ravens didn’t notice, targeting Brown twice on

third downs shortly after he came onto the field. Both plays ended

up with incompletions in the Steelers’ 23-20 win.

”They cooled off after a while,” Brown said. ”They tried me

the first two third downs and they weren’t successful. … They

didn’t throw much at me after that.”

Allen’s start proved rockier. Baltimore wide receiver Anquan

Boldin lit him up several times in the first half as the Ravens

moved the ball with relative ease as Baltimore eased to a 13-6

lead.

Getting picked on didn’t tighten Allen up. If anything, it

helped him relax.

”The new guy, yeah, (teams) try to go at him,” Allen said.

”It’s something you have to be ready for. Every down you play, you

have to play like it’s coming to you. I was ready for it and

expecting it and I accept that challenge.”

So does fourth-year cornerback Keenan Lewis, who suddenly finds

himself the elder statesman. Lewis has provided a sounding board

for both Allen and Brown, maybe it’s because he’s used to being

considered the weaker link with Taylor on the other side of the

field.

There’s a reason Lewis is tied for the NFL lead in passes

defensed: Teams would prefer to throw at him than Taylor. He

persevered much the same way the kids lining up next to him Sunday

will have to endure against one of the league’s biggest receiving

corps.

Then again, being relatively anonymous isn’t exactly a bad

thing. When asked what he knew about Allen and Brown, San Diego

quarterback Philip Rivers just laughed.

”Not a ton obviously,” Rivers said. ”I know it’s a confident

group of guys that stepped up in the game and played there in

Baltimore and won.”

Something the two young cornerbacks know is the standard in

Pittsburgh no matter who is on the field. There will be times when

it’s just one of them out there. They’re fine with it, knowing when

the time comes, they have each other’s back.

”The `two dogs, one bone thing,’ that’s a Coach T thing,”

Brown said. ”We’re just working every day.”

Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP