The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

August 2, 2013

NFL’s top-ranked secondary hoping to stay that way

BY DAN SCIFO
Associated Press

LATROBE — The Pittsburgh Steeler cornerbacks are trying their best to forget about last year.

It isn’t because the group endured a poor season. Not by a longshot.

The Steelers finished with the best pass defense in the NFL in 2012. And now they want to do it again.

“It’s 2013 now, so what you did in the past. Who cares?” cornerback William Gay said. “You have to come back and work even harder to try and get back to that level.”

It might be difficult at first after coach Mike Tomlin announced Friday that Cortez Allen underwent surgery on his right knee and will miss a couple of weeks. Allen, the team’s 2011 fourth-round draft pick, was expected to slide into the starting role opposite long-time Steelers’ cornerback Ike Taylor when the season opened.

“We wanted to get the surgery done now so he can begin rehabilitating immediately,” Tomlin said. “This surgery was a minor procedure and will have no long-term effects on his return to the field.”

The Steelers lost last year’s starter Keenan Lewis after he inked a free agent deal with New Orleans in March.

Allen, in his third year out of The Citadel, made a big leap in his second season as the team’s nickel back. He appeared in 15 games the past two seasons, making three starts last year, but missed the previous three training camp practices this week because of knee soreness.

Gay, who re-signed with Pittsburgh as a free agent in March after spending a year in Arizona, will start until Allen returns, and them, move to nickel back.

“It’s a highly-competitive group and we demand a lot of each other,” Allen said. “We have the talent to be the No. 1 secondary again. That’s what we work on every day and that’s the goal.”

Taylor enters his 11th year looking to put a disappointing end to last season behind him. Taylor started the first 12 games of the season in 2012 before a broken right ankle put him on the sideline for the rest of the year, snapping a streak of 135 consecutive games played.

“It’s frustrating sitting out with the ankle injury I had last year,” Taylor said. “All your life, you’ve been playing football and now you can’t play because of an injury.

“It was a different experience for me, and hopefully, God willing, it doesn’t happen again.”

Allen, the team’s top reserve cornerback last season, benefited from Taylor’s injury with the first three starts of his career. His impact was immediate. He caused five turnovers – two interceptions and three forced fumbles – during the final two games of the season.

“It was a great opportunity, but under an unfortunate situation with Ike injured,” Allen said. “I prepare every day as if I was the starter. That way it’s not a surprise or shock when you get in there.”

Lewis was a key component to the Steelers’ secondary last season, enjoying a career year in his first season as a starter. Lewis started all 16 games and finished with 69 tackles and 23 passes deflected. That was enough to earn Lewis a five-year, $26.3 million contract from New Orleans.

“I’m happy for (Lewis). He got paid,” Taylor said. “But he was a big part why we were the No. 1 pass defense. He stepped in and we didn’t lose a beat, so hopefully we can get the same thing this year.”

Taylor is convinced Allen can do the job when he returns.

“I have a lot of faith in Cortez,” Taylor said. “He took tremendous strides from last year to this year. He played a lot of nickel and wound up starting on the outside when I got hurt, so that gave him a lot of experience at the nickel and the outside.”

It’s part of the reason Taylor believes the cornerbacks have the opportunity to help the Steelers finish atop the league again this season. The loss of Lewis is substantial, but Allen’s maturation and Gay’s return have Taylor optimistic.

“Anything you do in life, you’re still trying to be No. 1,” Taylor said. “We’ve been No. 1, but regardless of what people say, we’re still striving. Our goal is to be No. 1 in the league. That’s what we strive for.”