Secret Superstar: Cortez Allen
When people think about the Pittsburgh Steelers heading into the 2013 season, the same thing keeps coming up. How will they replace the old guard?
James Harrison, long time mainstay at outside linebacker, is gone – signing with the Steelers AFC North rival Cincinnati Bengals. Meanwhile, Casey Hampton wasn’t immediately re-signed, although there’s a chance he’ll be brought back at a lower price now that Pittsburgh has more cap room to play with.
It’s never easy to see a team let go of the veterans who helped win multiple championships, but this has been coming for a few seasons in Pittsburgh. And, while they say goodbye to previous fan favorites, plenty of younger players have started to step up.
We could have focussed on a few different players here, with defensive linemen like Steve McLendon and Cameron Heyward proving themselves deserving of more opportunities in the future. Both played well but our Secret Superstar from the Pittsburgh Steelers from the 2012 season is talented cornerback Cortez Allen, who went from a rarely-used rookie to a key part of the team’s future in one season.
The Citadel, where Allen played his college football before being drafted in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL Draft, isn’t exactly known as a breeding ground for NFL talent. In fact, since the turn of the century, Allen is one of just three players to be drafted from the school. The other two being Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Andre Roberts and former Washington Redskins seventh-round fullback Nehemiah Broughton, which should tell you all you need to know about The Citadel and NFL prospects.
Because of this, Allen was regarded by many as a sleeper in the 2011 draft, with his small-school status balanced out somewhat by his 6-foot-1 frame. In a league where receivers seem to grow taller and faster by the year, teams covet cornerbacks who have the size to match-up well with those receivers while keeping up with them running downfield.
His rookie season was derailed by an injury that caused him to miss most of training camp. That, coupled with having four veterans in front of him, caused Allen to see just 60 defensive snaps in his rookie year. Interestingly, despite being on the field for just 46 snaps in coverage, he was a frequent target for opposing quarterbacks.
With a target once every 4.1 snaps in coverage, Allen finished the year without a single pass breakup, and gave up receptions on 81.8% of those targets. Crucially though, he wasn’t beaten deep and didn’t allow a touchdown reception. Even Tom Brady failed to get the better of him in their Week 8 matchup, with his four receptions allowed tallying just 44 yards with just 10 of those yards coming after the catch.
With all that in mind, it perhaps shouldn’t have been a surprise that Allen was able to impress in 2012. Given the opportunity as the teams’ nickel back after William Gay had departed for Arizona, and Keenan Lewis moving into his starting role, he didn’t really struggle much early on, an impressive feat given how difficult it can be to cover in the slot. For some teams, the nickel corner isn’t necessarily the guy who covers the slot receiver, with them coming onto the field and taking an outside receiver while the team’s top cover man moves inside.
That wasn’t the case in Pittsburgh, where Allen saw 288 of his 563 defensive snaps come in the slot. In fact, he was rarely used on the outside until he took over for the injured Ike Taylor in the Week 13 matchup with the Baltimore Ravens. Like in 2011, he was targeted frequently, with quarterbacks going after him once every 4.7 snaps in the slot.
Unlike 2011 however, this time he allowed just 60.5% of those passes to be completed. On the outside he was even more impressive, allowing a completion percentage of just 55.9%. He finished the year having allowed just 448 yards and a single touchdown through the air, while picking off two passes and breaking up nine more. That meant he got his hands on one out of every seven passes thrown into his coverage, a pretty impressive stat for the second-year man out of The Citadel.
It’s obviously important for players to be consistent but plenty of our Secret Superstars this year had a defining game that highlighted just how good they can be heading into the future and for Cortez Allen, that game came in Week 16 at home to the Cincinnati Bengals.
In a game that most Steelers fans will want to forget, considering it saw them eliminated from playoff contention, Allen had a game to remember. Matched up often with A.J. Green, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton took his chances with Allen, sending 10 passes the way of Green while in Allen’s coverage. While he did allow six completions to Green, none went for more than 15 yards and he limited Green to just 60 yards in his coverage while forcing a fumble too.
When not lined up against Green he was dangerous, breaking up one pass and picking off two to ensure that Andy Dalton will surely think twice before going after him when the two teams meet in 2013.
In a move that sees Allen follow a nice progression from rarely used to role player, and now to full-time starter, he replaces new New Orleans Saints player Keenan Lewis in the Steelers first-team defense. Like all of our Secret Superstars, there’s still plenty of room for Allen to grow. However, given his strong play in the slot and the way he played to finish the season, it’s not a stretch to say that he’s already the best player at the position on the Steelers roster. With more snaps in 2012 he showed he belonged on the field for the Steelers and, with a little more improvement in 2013 and beyond, it won’t be long until he’s getting the credit his play deserves.
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