Allen’s talent is undeniable but consistency has eluded the 6-foot-1, 196-pounder. The frustration that has caused among the Steelers’ coaches has led to Allen’s benching, even if it is only temporary.
I had a chance to ask Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake about Allen recently and a little context about this interview: It took place after Allen had intercepted a pass against the Jacksonville Jaguars -- and played arguably his best game of the season -- and before the former fourth-round draft pick gave up a long touchdown catch in Cleveland and struggled in a loss to the Browns.
Here is what Lake said about Allen.
Is Cortez Allen where you want him to be?
CL: Not yet but we’re working on it every week. He’s making the necessary corrections quickly in order to get himself to the next level. I think if he can kind of stay focused he has the potential to be pretty good in this league.
Is he anywhere close to his ceiling?
CL: I think he’s still learning the game. I think he’s got a lot more in him just from an understanding standpoint. Athletically I’m not really concerned so much. I think he has ability to tie that with the understanding of football in general and what offenses are trying to do. With his hands and his instincts for the ball, I’m hoping when it comes together it’s going to be something where people go, ‘Wow, this is a pretty good corner.’
Is he still learning because he played at a smaller school in college?
CL: I think his athleticism at that level, playing for The Citadel, he could kind of get away and not really lock in because he just had so much more talent than a lot of people. He could put it on auto pilot and still make a lot of plays. Up here, playing against receivers like [Antonio] Brown, you’ve really got to focus because as soon as you think they’re one way they’re another way and that’s how they play the game. Schematically as well, from a big-picture standpoint, there’s a lot of that going on with offensive coordinators and they’re going to pick on a relatively new corner. They’re going to test their mettle to see if they’re paying attention.
So as a coach you are constantly telling him to stay focused as a way of becoming more consistent?
CL: I think that’s the only way to be as a corner because as soon as you lapse for a minute somebody’s making a play on you. 'Tez has a long stride, he’s playing against a variety of receivers from tall and big to short and quick. 'Tez has to learn to hone his game in to be able to have the depth to say, ‘OK, this is how I can play successfully against this type of receiver and this is how I have to change my game to be successful against this type of receiver.’ You’ve got a Steve Smith or you’ve got a Megatron [Calvin Johnson]. That’s a totally different set of skills you need to start developing. But there are some fundamentals that you can carry between those two types of receivers. He needs to strengthen those fundamental skills and also have more tools in his toolbox.
Tackle by Texans defensive end J.J. Watt in Houston’s 17-10 win against Pittsburgh in 2011, the last time the teams met.
Combined touchdowns by Steelers running backs Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount this season.
Touchdowns by Watt this season.
100-yard rushing games by Texans running back Arian Foster in five contests this season.
Yards per play the Steelers are averaging, ninth-best in the NFL.
Steelers’ NFL rank in opponents’ third-down conversion rate (35.2 percent).
Texans’ NFL rank in turnover differential (plus four).
Times that the Steelers sacked Texans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in three previous games.
Quarterback pressures by Steelers outside linebackers through six games.
Games in which Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons has recorded at least 10 tackles since 2012.
Quarterback pressures by Steelers defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Brett Keisel.
Receptions Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson needs to pass Randy Moss for 10th on the NFL’s all-time list.
Steelers’ NFL rank in kickoff returns (18.6 yards per return).
Percentage of times the Steelers have scored touchdowns this season when they are inside opponents’ 20-yard line, second-worst in the NFL.
Percentage of times the Texans are allowing touchdowns when are opponents are inside their 20-yard line, third-best in the NFL.
Fitzpatrick’s career passer rating against the Steelers.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's passer rating in the fourth quarter this season, No. 23 in the NFL.
Foster’s average rushing yards per game.
Bell’s average yards from scrimmage.
Receiving yards by Antonio Brown, first in the AFC and the most by a Steeler through the first six games of a season.
The Pittsburgh Steelers face the monumental task of limiting the impact that Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt makes on Monday night at Heinz Field.
Watt has been arguably the best player in the NFL through the first six weeks of the season, and the fourth-year veteran has slapped a sleeper hold on the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award.
The 6-foot-5, 289-pounder has four sacks, 20 quarterback hurries, six passes defensed, two forced fumbles and an interception. Watt also has a blocked extra point for good measure.
Most mind-boggling when it comes to the most destructive defensive player in the game: Watt has three touchdowns -- or as many as the Steelers have managed in their past three games.
Here is what the Steelers are saying about Watt.
Coach Mike Tomlin: “Generally you are going to try to figure out a way to get two bodies on him. They have a great defensive coaching staff that I know very well. They do a very good job of scheming to get him into those one-on-ones even when you are trying to allow it not to happen. It will be a full-time job. He is going to make plays. What we have to prevent is the game changing plays that you see on tape.”
Right tackle: Marcus Gilbert: “He’s relentless, so we have to match his intensity. They move him around, so the guy’s going to be all over the field. You embrace these challenges because the spotlight’s on you. You get to show what you can do.”
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley: “He is a unique and special player at his position, which is multiple positions. You don’t generally see 300-pound guys running down the sidelines scoring touchdowns from 60 and 80 yards. He is a freakish athlete whose motor never stops. You aren’t going to keep him off the stat sheet entirely. I think that would be a reach but what we have to make happen is limit the game changing plays that he has shown on tape.”
Center Maurkice Pouncey: “He knows how to quick-arm over really, really well, he gets skinny on double teams, he jumps up and swats the ball. You don’t see that a lot. I think the thing that makes him the player that he is, is he goes hard every single play. As an NFL offensive lineman that blocks defensive players, you’ve got to appreciate that.”
Running back Le’Veon Bell: “It’s crazy because in college I’m like, ‘This is one of the best players I’ve ever played [against] in my life.’ And it’s crazy he got better in the NFL. I guess some people’s game just translates better in the NFL and he’s definitely one of those players that’s done that. He’s got a motor, he’s got all the swim moves and bull rush.”
And away we go ...
@ScottBrown_ESPN: By the way you phrased the question, I am guessing you are referring to the Steelers retiring Dick LeBeau the way they did former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians in 2012. Let me start by saying this: The notion that the game has passed LeBeau by is pure hooey. LeBeau hasn't lost his acumen or forgotten how to coach football; he simply doesn't have the personnel to put together the kind of defenses that Steelers fans have come to expect. I think the Steelers are aware of that and would not push him out if LeBeau wants to return after this season. That said, there could be significant changes if the Steelers miss the playoffs for a third consecutive season, and LeBeau might not be safe from those. I don't get the sense that retirement is on his mind, and I would think that LeBeau wants nothing more than to get the Steelers' defense back among the top units in the NFL before he calls it a career. I will be surprised if he doesn't get that chance.
@ScottBrown_ESPN: Man, I wish I had a crystal ball when it comes to this team. It has been impossible to know what to expect from the Steelers on a week-to-week basis. They have to take advantage of this three-game stretch at Heinz Field and win two of three, starting Monday night against the Houston Texans. The schedule isn't too difficult, and there are a lot of average teams in the NFL, so I think the Steelers still could win nine or 10 games. However, they could just as easily finish with five or six victories. I would like to see how this plays out before we start calling the season a disaster and firing everybody.
@ScottBrown_ESPN: Well, the owners have to make a sizeable profit, and I don't think they would be too keen on paying a ton of money to their coaches, too. It is like that in every professional sport, and owners don't pay their coaches nearly as much as the players because the latter are a disproportionate reason why teams win (or lose), and the players drive things such as merchandise sales and TV ratings. Just as significant is if an assistant balks at not getting more money from a team, in most cases there are 20 qualified people lined up to take the salary the team is offering. And I can assure you coaches in the major sports make a very nice living, so I wouldn't feel too sorry for them.
@ScottBrown_ESPN: It might since it wouldn't allow defenses to substitute. If the Steelers catch opponents with a personnel grouping they can exploit, it might make sense to go no-huddle close to the end zone. The Steelers have to look at anything and everything as they try to fix what running back Le'Veon Bell called their "red zone blues." More balance in play-calling inside opponents' 20-yard line and better execution would go a long way toward solving the Steelers' biggest problem. I honestly believe this offense is close to playing at the level the Steelers need. But until the yards the Steelers have been piling up start translating into more points, the offense is going to be the subject of intense scrutiny..
Mitchell and Keisel are listed as probable for the 8:30 p.m. ET game at Heinz Field in the Steelers’ final injury report of the week.
Starting inside linebacker Ryan Shazier is listed questionable after missing the past three games because of a sprained right knee.
Safety Shamarko Thomas will miss his second consecutive game because of a hamstring injury. Starting nose tackle Steve McLendon (shoulder) and cornerback Ike Taylor (forearm) were declared out at the beginning of the week.
Texans outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney is listed as questionable. The No. 1 overall pick of the 2014 NFL draft has missed the past five games after having early season knee surgery.
Texans coach Bill O’Brien has said Clowney will be a game-time decision.
@ScottBrown_ESPN: I don't know if I would characterize this upcoming stretch as brutal, especially with all three games at home. I do think the Steelers need to win at least two out of three if they want to put themselves into playoff contention. Even if they lose all three I would be shocked if there is a change made in regard to Todd Haley unless the wheels completely fall off the offense. There is nothing in the way that the Steelers operate that suggests they will make a significant coaching change during the season. Fans who are so disenchanted with Haley should also consider that the execution by the players hasn't been close to where it needs to be for this offense to start scoring more points. The Steelers players would be the first to say that.
@ScottBrown_ESPN: I think both return even if the Steelers miss the playoffs unless something drastic happens like they lose the rest of their games. Mike Tomlin will probably have to shake up his staff if the Steelers miss the playoffs for a third consecutive season and I think he officially lands on the proverbial hot seat if that happens. The Steelers would also have to take a hard look at their drafting process. Whatever the setup is in regard to Kevin Colbert and Tomlin doesn't appear to be working. The Steelers have made too many questionable draft picks since the two have been together. I think the Steelers would be wise to give Colbert the final say -- there appears to be 50/50 split between him and Tomlin -- and give him ownership the draft. Colbert's body of work going back to 2000 has earned him the right to get the Steelers' drafting back on track.
@ScottBrown_ESPN: I don't know if I'd say genius. Right now it looks like the Steelers simply made the better of two bad choices. LaMarr Woodley may be non-factor in Oakland but it's not like Jason Worilds has been tormenting opposing quarterbacks. He has just two sacks and seven quarterback hurries in six games. Coach Mike Tomlin said earlier this week that the Steelers need Worilds to make impact plays on a consistent basis. The best thing that the Steelers can say about Worilds right now is they are not bound to him as far as a contract after 2014. It would be nice if they got more from the $9.754 million they are paying him this season.
@ScottBrown_ESPN: The Steelers wanted another special teams player against the Cleveland Browns with Shamrko Thomas out because of a hamstring injury. I wondered too about the decision to expose Wesley Johnson to waivers when the Steelers presumably could have found someone on else on their 53-man roster to take Thomas' spot on special teams. Ventrone did play well in Thomas' absence, and what does it say about Johnson that the Steelers were willing to risk losing him, as they did to the New York Jets? The bigger question may be why they used the second of two fifth-round picks on Johnson in the first place. That round continues to be a black hole for the Steelers. Their fifth-round picks dating to 2011 are Johnson, cornerback Shaquille Richardson, cornerback Terry Hawthorne, running back Chris Rainey and outside linebacker Chris Carter. Ouch.
Allen is expected to lose snaps to Brice McCain and probably his starting job when the Steelers play the Houston Texans Monday night at Heinz Field. The two will likely flip positions, with McCain starting at left cornerback and Allen playing nickelback when the Steelers go with five defensive backs.
Coach Mike Tomlin said earlier this week that there would be some lineup changes following a 31-10 loss at Cleveland. He also said McCain is a candidate to play more because of the “inconsistency” of other players.
It didn’t take any master code-breaking to figure out that Allen is in line for a demotion, even if it is only a temporary one. Allen leads the Steelers with two interceptions but consistency has eluded him.
The 6-foot-1, 196-pounder had a tough outing against the Browns, giving up a 51-yard touchdown catch to tight end Jordan Cameron, one of the key plays in the game.
“He’s still basically a young player and he’s at a difficult position and sometimes there are ups and downs there,” LeBeau said of Allen. “I have great confidence that he’ll find himself through it and be a very strong player.”
The Steelers signed Allen to a five-year, $26 million contract right before the start of the regular season, and they need to build around the former fourth-round draft pick at cornerback.
When asked if sometimes it helps struggling plays to take a step back and watch for a week, LeBeau said, “I’m thinking that it does. We’ll see.”
The Steelers will already be without starting nose tackle Steve McLendon (shoulder) for the 8:30 p.m. ET game at Heinz Field, and they will need as much manpower as possible up front on a defense that will try to contain Texans running back Arian Foster, the third-leading rusher in the NFL.
Starting defensive end Cameron Heyward (ankle) will play against the Texans barring a setback after practicing fully on Friday. Starting inside linebacker Ryan Shazier (knee) again took part in practice on a limited basis, and starting free safety Mike Mitchell (hamstring) was also limited in drills.
Shazier is probably another week away from returning to the field after spraining his knee in a Sept. 21 game at Carolina. Mitchell has said he will play Monday night.
The Steelers are likely to be without safety Shamarko Thomas (hamstring) for a second consecutive game. Thomas did not practice on Friday after taking part in Thursday’s drills on a limited basis.
Starting strong safety Troy Polamalu practiced after receiving a veteran’s day off on Thursday. Fullback Will Johnson (illness) was limited in drills.
Texans defensive end J.J. Watt is a monster and the front-runner for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Unfortunately for the Texans they can’t clone Watt and Houston is not the best defensive team even with him. The Texans are 29th in the NFL in total defense (397.2 yards per game), and the Steelers’ offense is due. This group managed a total of just two touchdowns in the last two games against underwhelming defenses, and Ben Roethlisberger has accepted the responsibility of converting all of the yards the offense has piled up into points. Rookie receiver Markus Wheaton has been putting extra time in this week to create better chemistry with Roethlisberger.
Prediction: Steelers 31, Texans 20
LeBeau is still high on Tuitt even though the second-round draft pick has been brought along slowly.
It would help the Steelers if Tuitt starts taking significant steps toward fulfilling that prediction.
Tuitt is in line to play significant snaps Monday night, if not start against the Houston Texans at Heinz Field.
Starting left defensive end Cam Thomas will slide over to nose tackle with Steve McLendon out because of a sprained shoulder. Brett Keisel, the Steelers' primary reserve at defensive end, has not practiced yet this week because of a knee injury.
Even if Keisel is able to play against the Texans, the Steelers will have to lean heavily on the 6-5, 303-pound Tuitt, who has played sparingly through the first six games of the season.
He is not the only rookie who could play significant snaps against the Texans.
Mammoth nose tackle Daniel McCullers has yet to dress for a game but the 6-7, 352-pounder is expected to play.
And McCullers has made enough progress that LeBeau said he would be comfortable playing the sixth-round draft pick for an extended number of snaps Monday night.
"Dan has got the size and strength [and] Tuitt has the athletic ability," LeBeau said. "They're going to be able to contribute and they have to start right now."
The Houston Texans visit Heinz Field for the first time since the 2008 season opener, and they are coming off a pair of close losses to the Dallas Cowboys and Indianapolis Colts. The Pittsburgh Steelers are smarting after getting embarrassed last Sunday in Cleveland. Both teams are 3-3 and the loser of this "Monday Night Football" game will really put itself in a hole.
ESPN Texans reporter Tania Ganguli and ESPN Steelers reporter Scott Brown take a closer look at the matchup.
Brown: Here is an observation from Captain Obvious (and no, I’m not poking fun of Mike Tomlin with that reference): J.J. Watt is not a typical defensive end. Three touchdowns in six games is amazing considering the position Watt plays and I think he has all but wrapped up the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. Do the Texans move Watt around or does he primarily wreak havoc from one spot on the field?
Ganguli: The Texans have never played Watt in one spot. That’s the case now with defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and it was the case under Wade Phillips, the Texans’ defensive coordinator the previous years Watt was here in Houston. When Crennel arrived in Houston, there were a lot of questions about how he would use Watt because Crennel’s system doesn’t typically feature aggressive defensive ends like Watt. But he knew what every other coach Watt’s ever had has known: Watt knows how to freelance in a way that helps the team. It’s best to let him do what he does best.
Texans running back Arian Foster is third in the NFL with 513 rushing yards and he will present a monumental challenge to a defense that gave up 158 rushing yards to the Browns on Sunday. To what do you attribute the Steelers’ trouble with stopping the run?
Brown: The Steelers simply have not found a replacement for five-time Pro Bowler Casey Hampton at nose tackle. I’m baffled why the Steelers did not try to re-sign “Big Snack” after the 2012 season when he played pretty well and probably would have returned at a reasonable price. Steve McLendon has not been the answer so far, and to be fair to him, that is not an easy position to play in a 3-4 defense. But a run-stuffer who can occupy multiple blockers is a must for the Steelers’ defense. If they don’t have that in McLendon, who won’t play against the Texans, they have to figure out some combination along the defensive line that will allow them to play better against the run.
Foster rushed for 155 yards and a touchdown against the Steelers in 2011 and Pittsburgh is really struggling with zone-blocking teams. How much of Foster's success can be attributed to the Texans’ offensive line and is Houston still primarily a zone-blocking team?
Ganguli: The Texans’ offensive line has had a mixture of good games and not-so-good games. There have been times when it's really helped the running game, but Foster’s vision and one-cut ability is unusual. He’s able to see holes that some of his teammates are still working on understanding. It’s why Foster is third in the league in rushing with 513 yards, behind Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray and Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, despite the fact that he missed one game and had only 8 rushing yards against the Bills in Week 4.
Is Bill Cowher right? Are the Steelers soft on defense?
Brown: I respect Cowher and certainly he has forgotten more football than I will ever know. But I reject the notion that the Steelers are soft on defense. I think it is disrespectful to a number of people to say that, most notably defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. These players play their guts out for several reasons and not wanting to let down LeBeau is chief among them. Instead of the label of soft, I would say that the Steelers are simply not that talented on defense, especially given the injuries that have stretched them thin at a number of positions, particularly outside linebacker. The Steelers' outside linebackers have combined for five sacks and 12 quarterback pressures in six games. That won’t cut it in a 3-4 defense.
I’m guessing Ryan Fitzpatrick isn’t the long-term answer at quarterback in Houston. What does he do well and where has he struggled?
Ganguli: Fitzpatrick does a good job of using his legs to get himself out of trouble, rather than the statuesque play Texans fans have seen in the past. When he’s not asked to do too much, he’s been able to protect the ball well, and he’s gotten better during the course of games. Fitzpatrick has been solid in play-action, as most quarterbacks with such a potent rushing attack at their disposal are, but the Texans haven’t been able to do much of that this season. The Texans’ offense has really struggled to move the ball early in games, and it's constantly talked about the need to develop an early rhythm.
Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 17 times, which is the second most in the NFL. Is the Steelers’ pass protection to blame? How do you see that playing out on Monday night?
Brown: Unless Watt misses the bus to Heinz Field, the Steelers are going to have a real issue trying to keep him away from Roethlisberger. Keeping Big Ben upright becomes even more problematic if Jadeveon Clowney, the first overall pick of the 2014 NFL draft, plays after missing the last five games while recovering from knee surgery. I could see the Steelers using their no-huddle offense a good bit this game. Roethlisberger generally gets rid of the ball quicker when the Steelers are in the no-huddle and playing in front of a home crowd should allow them use that mode of attack early and often.
But Haley also reviewed where else the Steelers are squandering points, and he said he came up with more than 10 plays outside of the red zone that cost them about six points per game.
“We would take those 37 points in a heartbeat. Yes, we want to score when we get in the red zone. We want to score touchdowns. But we have to be a smart football team in that fringe field-goal area because we can’t afford not to get those three points, and we end up with zero, like it has happened too many times this season in six games.”
Haley said the study affirmed to him that the Steelers are taking the right approach offensively even though they are sixth in the NFL in total yards (396.5 yards per game) but just 23rd in scoring (20.7 points per game).
"It really did, because again, that’s just getting the minimum points. That’s not counting the times we could have scored a touchdown. That was based on kicking the ball through the uprights and taking the three points,” Haley said. “We would be averaging 26.5 points and it would match up with 400 yards per game, and we would be up there where we need to be scoring points, and we would probably have at least one, maybe two more wins.”
Starting nose tackle Steve McLendon (shoulder) and cornerback Ike Taylor (forearm) have already been ruled out for the 8:30 p.m. ET game at Heinz Field.
In addition to Keisel and Mitchell, fullback Will Johnson did not practice on Thursday because of an illness. Strong safety Troy Polamalu was given a veteran’s day off.
Shazier, who has missed the past three games with a sprained knee, is still limited as he tries to work his work way back to the field.
Strong safety Shamarko Thomas (hamstring) and defensive end Cameron Heyward (ankle) were also limited in practice. Heyward has said he will play against the Texans.
In Houston, linebackers Jadeveon Clowney (knee), Brian Cushing (knee), and Brooks Reed (groin) did not practice because of injuries. Cornerback Darryl Morris (ankle) also missed drills.
Running back Arian Foster (groin), wide receiver Andre Johnson (ankle), cornerback Johnathan Joseph (knee) and linebackers Mike Mohamed (calf) and Jeff Tarpinian (knee) all practiced on a limited basis.