When all was said and done, veteran defensive back Will Allen was called upon to start the season opener for the Pittsburgh Steelers in a role that he often found himself in spelling strong safety Troy Polamalu over the course of the past several years.
While it was a move that many cynics predicted throughout the offseason, the truth is that his entrance into the starting lineup was a direct byproduct of third-year safety Shamarko Thomas failing to demonstrate a level of reliability playing the position that the coaches felt comfortable with.
This is a process that carried itself out during the preseason, and Thomas failed to deliver on a number of significant plays. He essentially lost the starting spot by playing his way out of it, rather than Mike Tomlin interjecting himself by leaning on the veteran over the younger player.
As it turned out, however, it appeared to matter little who was in the lineup against the Patriots, as the defense as a whole struggled to communicate with one another, often finding the secondary unable to get on the same page, resulting in blown coverages.
It is difficult to get a proper read on Allen’s performance considering the circumstances. Not only were there frequent communication issues, he, quite frankly, drew a tough assignment, pitted against Rob Gronkowski and Tom Brady under center.
The one touchdown that he did allow against Growkowski came against a strong run look that included four tight ends, making it more understandable that Allen was delayed in reacting to the route and unable to adjust in time against an All-Pro talent.
There were other occasions on which he defended Gronwkowski well, however, and he also executed a well-designed blitz that produced a sack, which was in fact the first of his career. Given that he is on the wrong side of 30, it’s safe to say that that was a long time coming.
Allen was involved in a high volume of tackles, not because he was frequently targeted in coverage—he allowed three receptions on five targets for 19 yards—but because the cornerback play necessitated the extra support.
But he also missed a couple of tackles of his own, which has been on his resume before, especially when he is asked to play unexpectedly, improving as the game, or games, so on. He showed as recently as late last season that he is still capable of playing well, even starting, so it would not be prudent to read too much into the negative tape from opening day.
We will see how things play out going forward, although Allen suffered a concussion late in the game, which obviously has the potential to sideline him for at least a game, or even affect his performance.
In such an event, Thomas would likely get the start, and if he performs well, perhaps he could hold on to that starting job for a while. But there are already indications that the Steelers are open to a variety of personnel, as four different safeties played on the night.