With safety Troy Polamalu listed as doubtful for Sunday’s tilt against the Kansas City Chiefs, Will Allen is likely to start at strong safety. The clamoring to give second year safety Shamarko Thomas a shot has continued to escalate but starting Allen makes the most sense. Last Sunday showed the perfect example of why Allen has become valuable to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It’s obvious the 32 year old is a Mike Tomlin favorite but it isn’t for an arbitrary reason. His ability has obviously diminished and he’ll live out the rest of his career playing on one-year contracts until the league tells him it’s time to retire.
But the trust factor that exists between player and coach can’t be quantified and isn’t something that easily disintegrates. When the team needed a safety last year after Robert Golden flunked his opportunity against the Minnesota Vikings, Tomlin immediately turned to Allen. Despite joining the team mid-season, Allen wound up playing over 350 snaps on defense and another 150 on special teams.
Despite not seeing a defensive snap until Week 5 this year, and not starting a game until Week 9, Allen has racked up over 160 snaps and will finish the year over 200.
Breaking it down into free or strong safety starts to show Allen’s value. He has played 81 snaps at strong, another 80 at free (a handful have come as the dime back). That’s versatility and trust to play either spot – each with their own assignments – interchangeably.
The Falcons game best exemplified that. Allen only received 11 snaps, all coming in the second half. He stepped onto the field early in the third quarter, initially filling in for Polamalu at strong safety. He logged two consecutive snaps at that spot before becoming the only ‘”true” safety when the team employed four cornerbacks instead on third down.
Allen was on the bench for the next two plays of the following Falcons’ series. He then came in to replace Polamalu for one play, went back to the bench on the next when 43 returned, and then finished the drive by playing the next three at free safety when Mike Mitchell injured himself on a tackle.
The start of the next series? Back to the bench Allen went until the team employed its goal line package. Something Mitchell isn’t apart of and hasn’t been all year long. Since Week 6 when the Steelers decided to use two safeties, Allen has become the man opposite of Polamalu. He logged one snap on the goal line, being credited for half a tackle.
Allen sat on the bench for the ensuing seven defensive snaps, but as became the theme in this contest, the veteran was called upon in the early portion of the fourth quarter after Mitchell tweaked his groin. Allen finished out the drive with three snaps at free safety. Mitchell came back the next drive to finish out the game.
Follow all that? To recap, it’s 11 snaps on defense. Eight at free safety, three at strong safety. Never playing more than three consecutive snaps. While not missing a beat.
Statistically, Allen finished with two tackles and a key forced fumble in the red zone that helped force the Falcons to settle for a field goal. All while still earning his keep on special teams. Allen has been a two phase guy for Danny Smith, running down kicks and punts.
That’s trust and reliability. The realization that Allen could come into the game, or exit it, at a moment’s notice. Being prepared to get thrown onto the field at either safety position, digest the call (or help make it), and execute.
Something that simply can’t be done with the majority of second year players like Thomas. And not one who has missed so much time with injury. Practice reps are far more valuable for Thomas than Allen.
In terms of potential and athletic ability, Thomas obviously wins in a rout. But that’s not the only factor that goes into a depth chart. Football IQ, versatility, and above all for Tomlin, trust, play major roles.
Thomas will get his chance. It’s his second year, not his tenth. But Will Allen has found a way to stave him off – and father time – for just a little while longer.