Marcus Allen was drafted as a highly regarded safety out of Penn State by Pittsburgh Steelers in the fifth round of the 2018 NFL draft. In week 14 of his third NFL season, Allen, now an inside linebacker following an offseason position change, was finally able to crack the starting lineup thanks. Allen’s first start is mainly stemming from a Robert Spillane knee injury and a positive COVID test from Vince Williams. It’s another case of the Steelers’ “next man up” mentality and Allen proved he was up to the challenge.
Allen logged 56 (75%) defensive snaps, by far the most of his NFL career, and was able to tally eight total tackles, one tackle for a loss, and was a critical part of a second-quarter forced fumble. Head coach, Mike Tomlin, sang his praises during his Tuesday press conference saying, “I liked some of the efforts that we saw particularly at the inside linebacker position. Can’t say enough about a guy like Marcus Allen, who’s new to the position, who’s new to the number of snaps he had and getting the type of effort that we got from him, for example.”
Let’s take a dive into the tape from Sunday night’s game and see what we can digest from Allen’s first NFL start.
One obvious improvement with Allen compared to his predecessors is his sideline to sideline speed. He was able to show it off early as he carries the Buffalo Bills’ running back on a flat route and makes the tackle for a short gain.
His coverage ability, in general, is also a plus over that of Spillane and Williams. Watch him here. Allen is originally lined up over the right guard threatening a blitz. He’s able to recognize the late release from the running back lined up in the slot, carry him to the flat, and stay in phase even after the back turns upfield. Very solid coverage from Allen.
Even though Allen was a safety in college, he’s got a long-legged body with a thick frame standing at 6’2” 215 lbs. While certainly undersized for a three-down linebacker, his frame can come in handy when covering slots. Allen isn’t afraid to get physical with hands-on. Here he’s lined up over the top of the WR3 in trips, Cole Beasley. Beasley tries to work inside out on an out route, but Allen isn’t having it, hitting the slot receiver inside of five yards and preventing any chance of timing pattern completion.
While Allen certainly impressed in most of the man coverage situations he was deployed, you were also able to start to see some of his flaws. In the below play, he’s over top of the WR2 on the trips side of the formation, Bills’ tight end, Dawson Knox. Allen tries to get hands-on inside of five yards but doesn’t get a good punch. Then in the trail technique, you can see his footwork and the tightness in his hips catch up to him as Knox cooks him on a dig route. If the Bills’ QB looks Knox’s way it’s likely a big gain. Knox is no slouch as a route runner, but you’d like to see a former defensive back like Allen be able to match him in coverage.
Now that we saw Allen’s ability in man-coverage, it’s time for a zone clip. Here, you can see him lined up at the line of scrimmage with blitz posture over the left tackle. It’s partially cut off, but you can see Allen barking out signals for the entirety of this pre-snap sequence, which I love. At the snap, Allen is able to smoothly backpedal to his zone at roughly 12 yards and take away the dig route from the tight end. This forces the Bills quarterback to try to use his legs to convert on third down. He is unable to as Allen and his running mate, Terrell Edmunds, are able to stack him up well short of the first down to bring out the punt team.
Another play Allen had in zone coverage was the forced fumble. While cornerback, Mike Hilton, was technically awarded the forced fumble, Allen had a big part in it. When this ball is starting to be thrown, Allen is actually on the opposite hash. His ability to read, react and accelerate helps create the hit power to jar this ball loose from Knox’s mitts.
Hustle is one of those things that is hard to bring out of younger players. However, it always finds a way of sticking out on film when they do. When Bills’ receiver, Stefon Diggs, catches the ball, Marcus Allen is even with the quarterback at the 25-yard line. He hustles 30 yards down the field and makes the solo tackle. If Diggs was being any more careless with the ball, Allen’s “axe” may have been able to jar the ball free.
Even in a league driven by high-volume passers, a linebacker has to be able to be solid against the run. Due to Allen’s inexperience at the position, it’s definitely his weak-point right now. If the Steelers plan to keep him at linebacker for an extended time, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him add ten or so pounds in the offseason.
You could see on a pretty consistent basis that when linemen got a hold of Allen he was easily driven not just out of the play, but way out of the play. Below are two examples. In both plays, he’s lined up at the Mike linebacker spot on the strong side of the formation. In the first clip, Allen is washed out of the hole, about ten yards downfield before he’s able to disengage and get in on the tackle. In the second, he is blocked all the way out to the numbers.
This isn’t to say Allen didn’t make any plays in the run game either, because he made a few nice plays in that area. Most notably was Allen’s tackle for loss. While it did come inside the last two minutes of the game, it doesn’t take away how impressive of a play it was. He shoots the gap with no hesitation and uses his strength to fight through an uncalled-hold to make a tackle on the ball carrier behind the line. If Allen can start to trust his eyes and play with this type of confidence consistently, the Steelers may have something there.
On that same drive, Allen had another run tackle. One of my top traits to look for in a linebacker is his ability to shed blocks. While the Bills’ guard didn’t look to be too physical here, Allen still is able to use his long arms to shrug him off and slide into the hole. Where I do have a knock on Allen is he often fails to bring his hips through when he tackles. He thrives on initial hit power but past that he has to hang on for dear life because he doesn’t bring his hips through. This leaves him with no leverage on the ball carrier. The ball carriers often are able to fall forward as a result, as you can see below.
The other issue with Allen’s ability to hit hard leads him to come into tackles out of control due to looking for a kill shot. This leads to over pursuing and missed tackles. It was Allen’s only missed tackle of the game, but one that could have easily been avoided if he simply broke down wrapped. That will be something I think that comes with time as he continues to adjust to the speed of the pro game.
All-in-all it was a really solid performance by Allen in his first start at linebacker in the NFL. It’s easy to see why Mike Tomlin was happy with his performance. Coming into the Buffalo game, many had the Steelers’ linebackers circled as a matchup to watch, but they stood their ground well and were far from the reason the Steelers lost Sunday night. We’ll see how everything shakes out at the linebacker position for the Monday night game against the Cincinnati Bengals, but I will say as long as the Steelers aren’t playing a super run-heavy ball club, I’d be comfortable for now with Allen getting extended snaps after his showing against the Bills.