The Pittsburgh Steelers have the top ranked pass defense in the NFL, and the top ranked defense, and an outstanding crop of mostly young cornerbacks. However, the injury to veteran starter Ike Taylor should significantly hurt the team’s chances at making the playoffs or, thanks to a recent victory over them, catching the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North division race. Taylor suffered a hairline fracture early on in that victory over the Ravens and never returned.
Although Cortez Allen, who took Taylor’s place in the starting lineup, is an exceptionally talented young cornerback, he did struggle early on. Allen was beaten deep twice by Anquan Boldin down the left sideline and couldn’t prevent the Ravens from scoring their only touchdown of the game even when illegally grabbing the receiver. It must be said that Allen rebounded well from that series and should have even caught an interception prior to it when he covered Torrey Smith brilliantly in the endzone.
An argument could be made that Allen is actually a better natural coverage defender than Taylor. Physically he has all the tools and has excelled in the slot for the Steelers since midway through his rookie season, last year. However, while his agility and intensity is higher than Taylor’s at this point in their respective careers, Allen is completely untested as an outside cornerback in the regular season. That’s not to say he hasn’t been tested, he took on the majority of responsibility against Rob Gronkowski from the slot as a rookie, but he doesn’t offer the same consistency and mental toughness as Taylor.
As much as they have to learn where to be within the defensive scheme, cornerbacks need to be like quarterbacks in that they must have no memory. Allen isn’t used to being repeatedly targeted against the opposition’s best receivers. The Steelers have no way of knowing how he will react to giving up a big gain or, inevitably, an important first down conversion or touchdown. Those plays happen to every cornerback at this level, but how they respond is what determines the quality of the player.
Compared to most backup cornerbacks, Allen is an absolute stud. His play isn’t really what the Steelers will be most worried about, opposed to the loss of depth. Throughout this season defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has been able to rely on Taylor and Keenan Lewis on the outside shutting down receivers, with Allen inside consistently making plays on the football. With Allen now moving outside and Taylor sidelined, the team will turn to the untested Curtis Brown in the nickel position. Brown has played just 31 snaps this year and is primarily, a very impressive, special teams player. The Steelers’ coaching staff do have high hopes for Brown and have used him as a dime defender this season. Of course, the difference between playing the dime position and nickel is massive.
There is still a chance that Taylor will return for the team’s crucial matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals in three weeks. The Steelers are desperate to win that game and having Taylor would be a major advantage for them. During the two team’s last game, a battle the Steelers ultimately won in Cincinnati, Taylor limited AJ Green to just one reception, albeit for a touchdown. Green averages over 6 receptions per game and the Steelers are the only team to limit him to less than three receptions and less than 10 yards. Without Taylor, the Steelers would move Lewis onto Green. Lewis has had an outstanding season so far this year, and has significantly more experience than Allen, but he still couldn’t be expected to stop a star like Green on his own.
Furthermore, the Bengals are a team with multiple receiving threats behind Green. Without every cornerback on the roster healthy, there is a knock on effect at the other positions. Allen would be forced to cover the inexperienced but talented Marvin Jones on the edge, while Brown would likely spend much of his time covering Andrew Hawkins. Lebeau could mix it up to keep Allen on Hawkins and move Brown outside, or he could play three safeties in his nickel package and move Troy Polamalu into the slot. Ideally, Lebeau wouldn’t want to start moving too many pieces around and would prefer for Brown to step up.
The Steelers face a lot of uncertainty in the future without Taylor.