The Pittsburgh Steelers selected two cornerbacks in the third rounds of different drafts over the past five offseasons. First came Keenan Lewis, a player who eventually became a starter in his fourth season before joining the New Orleans Saints as a free agent in 2013. The other was Curtis Brown, a player who has had his moments on special teams during his first two seasons but has done little to suggest that he will ever be a starter.
Missing on two relatively high picks for such an important position in today's league should have dramatically affected the quality of the Steelers secondary. However, fortunately for the Steelers, a fourth-round pick from the 2011 draft appears set to not only become a starting cornerback, but potentially a star cornerback.
Cortez Allen was selected with the 128th overall choice in the 2011 NFL draft. He was the 19th overall player taken at his position and he came off the board 33 spots after the Steelers selected Brown.
Allen fell in the draft because he was considered a raw athlete coming out of The Citadel. The Steelers took the then-22-year-old with the idea of developing him for the future. The Steelers hoped Carnell Lake, Dick LeBeau and the rest of the defensive staff could craft his sheer physical talents into an all-around football player.
Once training camp began however, Allen didn't look to be that far behind. He showed some flashes and while he only played 60 snaps during his rookie year, those 60 snaps featured a cameo against the New England Patriots when he faced off well against Rob Gronkowski. Allen jumped out of the spotlight as quickly as he had appeared in it after that game, but he wouldn't wait long before becoming an important young piece on the Steelers' veteran defense.
Entering the 2012 season, Allen's second, he was set to be the Steelers' nickel defender playing inside as the fifth defensive back. The previous year, William Gay had moved inside in nickel packages as Keenan Lewis was the fifth defensive back on the field. Now, Lewis was outside across from Ike Taylor full-time with Allen playing a bit-part role inside.
He consistently impressed so much from week to week that certain sections of the fanbase believed that he should already be starting over Lewis outside. Of course, it was easier for fans to appreciate Allen because he wasn't being tested as much as Lewis. Any inconsistencies in his play wouldn't be highlighted simply because he was on the field less.
Furthermore, he wasn't proving himself outside consistently or against top receivers on every snap because he had two other cornerbacks ahead of him on the depth chart. Of course, that worked both ways because Allen also didn't get the opportunities to show off more than a subset of his skill set.
This chart, courtesy of Pro Football Focus, shows off Allen's involvement on defense during the 2012 season.
Not until Week 13 did Allen play more than 34 snaps in a single game. It was during a Week 13 matchup with the Baltimore Ravens when starting cornerback Ike Taylor was injured on the second snap of the game. Taylor would ultimately be sidelined for the rest of the season, affording Allen his opportunity to start, not in place of Lewis, but across from him.
Because he missed the Week 15 matchup with the Dallas Cowboys due to injury, Allen effectively started just four games. Instead of breaking down his whole season and considering what he did in different roles as a bit-part player on defense, it's best to exclusively analyze what Allen did in those four games.
On 275 total snaps, Allen had 80 qualifying man-coverage attempts. He successfully covered 62 of those routes for a 77.5 percent success rate. He covered 32 of 45 total routes at left or right cornerback for a 71 percent success rate and 30 of 35 in the slot for a success rate of 85.7 percent.
Although that sample size was very small, and therefore inconclusive on its own, the results indicate that he can be a strong replacement for Lewis in the Steelers' starting lineup.
Lewis and Allen were side-by-side in terms of overall success rate, although Lewis primarily played outside, where Allen's success rate dropped to 71 percent.
That discrepancy doesn't point to a big difference between both players however. Lewis was analyzed during his fourth season, when he entered the regular season knowing he was the starter after a full training camp and preseason. Allen took over unexpectedly toward the end of his second season with no preparation time.
Allen and Lewis' success rates can be compared to each other because they played similar roles. However, Allen's percentage shouldn't be directly compared to the other players in the above chart from Pre Snap Reads. That is because different assignments and scheme requirements dramatically affected the success rates of those players. Players in red were asked to do much more than players in blue, while players in green benefited from notable help from scheme or their teammates.
While Lewis is a rangy cornerback who has very impressive length, straight-line speed and the toughness to tackle running backs consistently, Allen combines those traits with a fluidity and ability to play the football that was lacking in Lewis' play.
The simple fact that Allen was able to play in the slot with such effectiveness points to his ability to shift his weight quickly and change directions in tight spaces. Lewis was never moved into the slot because he couldn't make those movements. On the field, Lewis looks much bigger than Allen, but both are 6'1" with similar weights and Allen doesn't play like a smaller defender.
A handful of plays from his first game against the Baltimore Ravens showed off the variety in his athletic ability.
Early in the second quarter, the Ravens came out in a heavy formation with Vonta Leach in the backfield ahead of Ray Rice. Allen is lined up to the top of the screen over Torrey Smith, who has Anquan Boldin immediately inside him in the slot.
Because it's 2nd-and-10, Allen is playing the situation and the receiver by lining up more than 10 yards away from Smith. Smith is one of the fastest receivers in the NFL, but Allen knows that his quickness and burst moving forward will allow him to prevent a first down on any throws underneath.
Smith runs directly at Allen to start his route. Allen continues to backpedal so much so that he is still facing Smith 15 yards down the field with a cushion between the two players. Allen watches Smith long enough to know that he won't be turning back to the quarterback or running an out route to the sideline. By doing this he forces himself to turn toward the sideline rather than turn with Smith infield.
This is his one mistake on the play because he is too slow coming out of his break to stick on the shoulder of a receiver like Smith. Allen needs to get a better plant with his outside foot so he can push off and accelerate faster on the turn with Smith. Instead, Smith creates all his separation at this stage of the route.
From this point, Allen should be completely taken out of the play by Smith's straight-line speed. He has given Smith a chance to get away and the receiver should have had an easy reception on a well-thrown pass from Flacco.
However, Allen's straight-line speed at the very least forces Flacco to make an accurate pass in time for Smith to run underneath it, something that he fails to do.
Allen is behind Smith and there is some space between the two, but he has his head back to locate the football in the air and he quickly recognizes that the pass is underthrown, floating toward the end zone rather than spiraling toward Smith.
At this point of the route, Smith's speed advantage disappears and it's all about who can win the ball in the air.
With his superior athleticism, favorable positioning and willingness to attack the ball at its highest point, Allen not only breaks up the potential touchdown, but comes very close to intercepting the pass. While he didn't run with Smith through the whole route, very few defensive backs can run with him down the field, as Champ Bailey will attest to.
Allen needs to work on how he comes out of his breaks on these kinds of routes because Smith forced a pass interference penalty against him in a very similar situation at another point in the game. That is all part of the development process for the young cornerback.
Of course, it doesn't mean that he will be able to run with Smith on every snap, but it will allow him to cover 95 percent of the receivers in the league.
In Baltimore, the Ravens had two receivers who played two extremes. Smith was primarily reliant on his speed, while Boldin was the polar opposite as he looked to use his sheer strength to overwhelm those trying to cover him. For a young defensive back such as Allen, that is somewhat of a baptism of fire, but also an experience that teaches onlookers an awful lot about his potential.
Boldin's reputation was bloated last season by his ability to high point the football and fend off defenders for huge receptions in the playoffs. On the play immediately before the one detailed above, Allen was in off-coverage against Boldin and Flacco was going to put the ball in the air for him to go up and get it.
Allen initially lined up in off-coverage, so when Boldin turns on a quick curl route underneath, he is five yards away from the receiver. Flacco throws the ball as soon as he sees Boldin turn and Allen begins moving forward at the same point also so it's a straight race.
Flacco's arcing pass arrives high above Boldin's head. This throw is one that Flacco routinely makes even though it puts more pressure on his receiver to make the reception. Normally, Boldin was able to easily make the reception because most defensive backs didn't have the strength to hit his exposed mid-section or to punch the ball out with extended arms.
Boldin does get his hands to the ball first, but as soon as he touches the ball, Allen arrives. Firstly, the defensive back's ability to close on the football that fast is impressive, but more important is his ability to instantly locate the ball in the air, while still having the strength and precision at full extension to punch it free of the receiver's hands.
If this was any old receiver it might be less impressive, but this is the type of play that Boldin excels at making.
Of course, the above play didn't require Allen to deal with Boldin's physicality in coverage. He never got tight to his body and ran with him on the above play. He simply recognized the play, attacked the football and won the battle at the most important point. Earlier in the game, Allen showed off his ability to handle more aggressive receivers.
Even though he is expected to start outside this season, the Steelers will still have the flexibility to move Allen around the field if they want to. With William Gay re-signing in Pittsburgh, the Steelers have at least two cornerbacks who can play inside or outside.
At times when Boldin moved into the slot in this game, Allen followed him. Allen was exceptional covering slot receivers because unlike most slot receivers, he didn't sacrifice any physical attributes to play inside. He had the speed to run with any inside receiver and the strength to fend off any bigger inside receiver or tight end.
Boldin is looking to release inside of Allen at the snap. He doesn't fake outside with a hard step or try to use his feet to shift Allen off balance in any way. Instead, he immediately looks to knock Allen off balance with his arms.
Boldin punches Allen's inside shoulder, but the defensive back absorbs the hit while still keeping his hands into the receiver's chest. This allows him to stick tightly to Boldin as he releases inside. Importantly, Allen also sidesteps with Boldin rather than turning, which allows him to keep his chest pressed into the receiver.
Allen and Boldin wrestle each other for position five yards down the field before Boldin turns back to face his quarterback. Allen isn't giving him any space to catch the football cleanly however. Many defensive backs would have bounced off Boldin before this point and the receiver would have had a simple catch for a first down.
When the ball arrives, Allen gets a hand to it as he is hitting Boldin to prevent the reception.
While this play shows off Allen's strength to compete with Boldin, it needs to be noted just how important it was for Allen to not be beaten at the line of scrimmage. The release of any route is vital because it sets up the rest of the play. A great example of this came in the same game on Boldin's touchdown reception.
On this play, Boldin didn't look to overpower Allen. Instead, he took a hard step toward his inside shoulder before quickly working back toward the sideline. That brought the young defensive back infield, which created enough space for him to have a free release into his sideline route.
That small space ultimately turned into a small throwing window through which Flacco could hit Boldin for a touchdown.
For a long time, Dick Lebeau's defense primarily played zone coverage with shorter, shiftier defensive backs. In recent times, he has moved away from those types of players. Last season, Allen, Lewis and Ike Taylor were all at least 6'1" and were routinely asked to play man coverage. Even though the team has moved in that direction under the guidance of defensive backs coach Carnell Lake, the Steelers still feature different types of coverage.
That requires their cornerbacks to be able to play both zone and man coverage effectively.
Against the Cincinnati Bengals in the Steelers' biggest game of the season, Allen came up with two interceptions. One was an athletic reception on a tipped ball as he fell out of bounds, but the other came when the Steelers designed a zone play to bait Andy Dalton into a poor throw.
Allen started off the play at the bottom of the screen lined up over A.J. Green. He initially lingered over Green for a moment before dropping down the sideline as Troy Polamalu peeled off of Andrew Hawkins in the slot onto Green. That allowed Allen to work back infield and undercut Dalton's pass to Hawkins.
Once he was there, Allen completely took Hawkins out of the play by high pointing the football to make a clean catch.
While he has proven himself more in man coverage, Allen has the natural instincts and flexibility to thrive in any zone coverage the Steelers ask him to fit into. It's that instinctual play that allowed him to force three fumbles and catch two interceptions during his four-game stint in Taylor's place.
Moving Allen into the starting lineup without Lewis on the roster does hurt the Steelers' depth because Lewis is a markedly better player than William Gay. However, it's very possible that Allen will quickly take over Taylor's role as the Steelers' best cornerback. That is something Lewis never did, in spite of how he performed last season.
That said, Allen won't have a full preseason or training camp under his belt entering this season. A minor knee procedure has sidelined him since the start of training camp. He should be ready for the start of the season, but for a young, developing player, that practice time refining his fit and skill set could have been invaluable.
You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf