INDIANAPOLIS – The question, as articulated by John Finn from Williamsport, Pa., to be included in an installment of Asked and Answered, has been a regular one throughout this offseason. The answer – as much of an answer as realistically can be provided in late-February – came from General Manager Kevin Colbert in a hallway inside Lucas Oil Field this week.
Finn's question: "I am a big proponent of learning from your mistakes. Are there any indications that Cortez Allen, who I believe is talented enough, can learn from his and be a major contributor to the Steelers defense in 2015?"
It's a generally accepted premise that for the Steelers defense to be good enough to be part of a team capable of contending for more than the AFC North Division title won last season, it's going to need a big year from Cortez Allen. There are others on whom the same pressure deserves to fall, but Cortez Allen is definitely in that group.
"Cortez enters this season where he left off," said Colbert. "We have to find out about Cortez and whether he can accept the challenge of being a starting NFL cornerback. He showed signs of that in the past. He was productive in spurts for us in the past. Again, you invest in players you think can be good players."
The investment referenced by Colbert is the contract extension Allen signed before the start of the 2014 regular season. The salary cap space was part of the investment, but so too was the team's belief that at the time of the signing they had a 6-foot-1, 196-pound cornerback, a 25-year-old fourth-year pro, who had shown steady improvement since being a fourth-round pick from The Citadel.
"He had his difficulties early in the 2014 preseason," said Colbert about Allen. "He lost his starting job. He was working his way back, and then he broke his thumb. He had some knee work done as well. You can't figure that Cortez is just going to come in and be the guy. He has to work his way back to be that guy, but we have confidence he can. I always talk about Ike Taylor. Right around the same period in Ike's career, he faced difficulties and he lost his starting position as well. He had to fight his way back, and Ike showed the mental toughness to do that. We hope Cortez does the same thing."
Going to Saint Vincent College for their 2012 training camp, the Steelers had a battle for a starting cornerback job going between Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen. Lewis opened camp as the starter mainly because of seniority, and there was a common belief on campus that Allen ultimately would prevail. But in a classic case of one player going into a contact year and refusing to be denied, Lewis held onto the starting job.
Injuries got Allen into the lineup late that season, and in two starts at the end of the year he had two interceptions, three passes defensed, three forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. Injuries nagged him at the start of 2013, and he lost his starting job. He got it back for the season's final four games during which the team was 3-1. and he contributed seven passes defensed and a pick-six in the win in Green Bay. At that point, Allen seemed to be developing into a capable starting cornerback.
Photos of the 2014 Cornerbacks.
Today, the Steelers are at the NFL Scouting Combine knowing they have to find some ways to fortify the cornerback position during this offseason.
"I think we have to look at it realistically and say, 'This is where he is, and this is where we need him to be,'" said Colbert. "We are going to support him as he tries to get back to that spot, but it would be unrealistic to say, 'OK, that didn't happen last year.' It did happen. Cortez lost his job. Cortez tried to get it back. He became injured. So, he is starting over. Again, we have the confidence that he can, or we never would have signed him to that deal."