PITTSBURGH – In 2003, the Steelers selected two players in the draft who would go on to become cornerstones in their secondary for the next decade.
With any luck, the team hopes the defensive backs they selected in the 2011 draft can have as much success in the next decade as strong safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor.
With Taylor sidelined for at least two weeks with a hairline fracture in his ankle, ending his consecutive games played streak at 135 – the most for any current corner in the NFL – the Steelers will rely on second-year cornerbacks Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown to hold down the fort in the league’s top-ranked secondary.
In other words, the future is now.
“The way we see it, we hope to be here as a duo for the future,” said Brown, who was a third-round pick last season.
While Brown was the higher draft pick, Allen, a fourth-round selection, has seen more of the playing time in Pittsburgh’s defense in their first two seasons.
Much as he did with receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders in their first couple of seasons, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin pitted Allen and Curtis Brown against each other in practices to see which one would play.
Despite that, Allen and Brown have built a friendship.
“We’re really good friends, and we just push each other,” said Brown, a former University of Texas star. “Competition is a good thing.”
Allen learned that earlier this season when he battled third-year corner Keenan Lewis for a starting spot in training camp before settling into the job of covering the slot receiver in the team’s nickel defense.
When the Steelers (7-5) host San Diego (4-8) Sunday, Allen is expected to replace Taylor in the starting lineup in Pittsburgh’s base 3-4 defense, while Brown will enter the game on passing downs.
And as they did in last week’s 23-20 victory over Baltimore, when Taylor was injured on the second play of the game, Allen will move back inside to the slot with Brown playing outside in the nickel defense.
The Steelers expect San Diego to test their three young corners with deep passes as Baltimore did last week.
Baltimore’s Joe Flacco completed just two of 10 passes of 20 or more yards as the Ravens continually tried to go deep against a Pittsburgh defense missing its most established corner.
“Defintely. They’ll try to test all of us,” said Lewis, when asked if he expected more of the same from the Chargers, who start a pair of 6-5 receivers in Danario Alexander and Malcom Floyd.
“That’s what they do. And even though their guys are big, they can run.”
Lewis leads all AFC cornerbacks with 22 passes defensed, eight more than Taylor and Buffalo’s Stephon Gilmore, who are tied for second with 14 each.
But Allen has been active as well, breaking up eight passes in his limited playing time, including three against the Ravens.
Part of the reason for that was because Baltimore tested him so often, but he also held up well. While Allen did give up both of the Ravens’ deep completions – including one for a touchdown – he also had three pass breakups.
“Replacing Ike or stepping in for him is some big shoes to fill,” said Allen, who was considered a raw talent coming out of The Citadel, about as far from a college football factory as you can get.
“I have a lot of respect for him and just what he brings to the field. And outside the field, he’s my mentor, in a sense, as far as the game is concerned.”
Odds and end zones
After sitting out practice Wednesday, wide receivers Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace and guard Willie Colon returned on Thursday. … Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders was limited. … In addition to Taylor, safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, linebacker LaMarr Woodley, quarterback Byron Leftwich, punter Drew Butler and tackle Mike Adams did not practice.