Fifth-year Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Cortez Allen has missed the past four games with an ankle injury in spite of the fact that he has had some level of participation during practice for the better part of the past two weeks. He is officially listed as questionable to participate in this afternoon’s game.
Clearly the coaching staff is being cautious with Allen and his knee, as they know from his background that his body has been slow to rebound from such injuries in past seasons, particularly during the past two years, in each of which he was ultimately demoted from the starting lineup.
This year, the Steelers dispensed with the formalities and designated the 6’1” cornerback the team’s nickel back for the season opener, during which he had his struggles in tackling and committing penalties, but he has as of yet been deprived of the opportunity to redeem himself.
Should he find himself active today, it could be interesting to see if the coaching staff actually gives him that opportunity, as the role of the nickel cornerback has since the second game of the season been filled by the recently signed Ross Cockrell, whom the Steelers added to the roster on the day of final roster cuts.
While he has found some success—he returned an interception 37 yards and recovered a fumble two games ago—the second-year corner with limited playing time and limited experience in the Steelers’ system had a bit of a reality check last week working primarily against Keenan Allen, with the cerebral Philip Rivers throwing to him.
Cockrell missed a tackle or two, drew two penalties, including a pass interference penalty, and gave up a small handful of receptions, including a 32-yarder on which he was soundly beaten, but he also came back to diagnose and blow up a screen pass later in the game.
The Steelers like Cockrell on the outside because of his size, which is why a certain other cornerback on the roster who will not be named has had such a monumental struggle finding opportunities for himself to see the field.
Height is the same thing that first attracted the Steelers to Allen, who got on the field relatively early, seeing some snaps in the dime package as a rookie, then ascending into a regular role as the nickel cornerback by year two, ultimately auditioning for and winning the opportunity to start in year three.
But that is where the upward trajectory ended, and it has been downhill since. The fact that we are even discussing whether or not he would be given the chance to see some snaps over a second-year mid-round castoff from another team when he returns from injury speaks to how far he has fallen.
At the very least, Allen’s injury has given the Steelers the opportunity to get a long look at Cockrell before making a decision as to whether or not they believe they can stick with the young player. But it would still be nice to have as many healthy defensive backs as possible, as they are currently down to seven without him.