Pittsburgh Steelers: Cortez Allen
And away we go...
@ScottBrown_ESPN: That is up to the rookie linebacker -- and how Vince Williams and Sean Spence play in front of Shazier here in December. The Steelers have made it clear that to Shazier that he has to earn his way back onto the field after missing seven games because of knee and ankle injuries. That approach is opposite the one the Steelers took after they made Shazier a first-round draft pick in May and then installed him as the starter at weakside inside linebacker before the first full-squad offseason practice. All of the missed time may have set Shazier back enough to warrant playing Williams and Spence ahead of the former Ohio State standout right now. The Steelers may also be admitting that they erred in handing Shazier a starting job based off what they saw in rookie minicamp and not making him fight for it. It will be interesting to see how Shazier responds to the challenge the Steelers coaches' have issued to him.
@ScottBrown_ESPN: The Steelers could release Mike Mitchell and Cortez Allen and not take too much of a salary cap hit. Mitchell is only guaranteed $3.8 million after this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and that can be spread out over the next four years as far the salary cap since it is part of a signing bonus. Allen is guaranteed $5.06 million over the next three years. That too can be spread out over the next three years because that is what is left of his signing bonus. But here is my question: Who is going to play in the secondary in the coming seasons if you get rid of Mitchell and Allen? Cornerback Ike Taylor and safety Will Allen are in their final year of their respective contracts. I don't think either returns in 2015. Strong safety Troy Polamalu has two years left on his deal, but is he back after this season? I'm not so sure about that. What would make it easy for the Steelers to cut ties with Mitchell and Allen is also the reason why the Steelers won't do that. Each has a team friendly contract, and it's way too soon to give up on either, especially for a team that has all kind of questions in the secondary, both short- and long-term.
@ScottBrown_ESPN: That is an interesting thought, and if not the Cover 2 that coach Mike Tomlin grew up on as a young assistant coach in Tampa Bay, maybe the Steelers should play two deep safeties more. Their issues giving up big passing plays have been well-documented, and they can be attributed to the Steelers not getting enough pressure on the quarterback and the reality that they are simply not good enough at cornerback right now. But I'm also wondering if a part of the problem is the Steelers not having a free safety on defense. Mitchell seems miscast as a free safety as he plays with the sensibilities of strong safety, and Mitchell, not Shamarko Thomas, may be the heir apparent to Polamalu at strong safety. The Steelers have to find that safety who can patrol the middle of the road either in free agency or in the 2015 NFL draft if Mitchell is not that player. In the interim, they may need to play both Polamalu and Mitchell deep more often to help the cornerbacks.
@ScottBrown_ESPN: My hunch is that Dick LeBeau comes back for a couple of reasons. If the Steelers defensive coordinator is not the youngest 77-year-old in the history of mankind, he is in the discussion. LeBeau keeps himself in terrific shape and he is as sharp as ever as the Steelers' defensive players will tell you. LeBeau is part of the solution and is certainly not the problem when it comes to a middling defense that needs an infusion of talent as well as youngsters such as Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt to develop into impact players. Given the shape he is in and how competitive LeBeau is, I can't see him walking away from football until he at least has the Steelers' defense headed in the right direction. Then, he can hand it over to linebackers coach Keith Butler, who has been waiting patiently and deserves a shot to be a coordinator.
@ScottBrown_ESPN: If Antwon Blake plays well against the Atlanta Falcons, the Steelers have to play him as the nickel back or even start the former undrafted free agent. I'm with you that Blake seems to make plays when given an opportunity, and heck, given Cortez Allen's disastrous season, you could make a strong case that he is the most promising young cornerback on the Steelers' roster. Extended playing time for Blake could come at the expense of Ike Taylor, which would be a tricky situation given all that Taylor has done for the Steelers during his career. But it would not be unprecedented for Tomlin to sit an accomplished veteran for a younger player. He did that in 2011 with wide receiver Hines Ward, playing Antonio Brown over the leading receiver in Steelers' history. It was the right call then and is something Tomlin wouldn't hesitate to do again if it is best for the team.
The Steelers signed cornerback Kevin Fogg on Tuesday and released safety Jordan Dangerfield.
Fogg spent time with the Miami Dolphins after signing with them in June as an undrafted rookie before getting released. The 5-foot-10, 185-pounder signed with the Steelers after working out with them Tuesday.
Fogg played at Liberty University and in 2013 he had four interceptions and 44 tackles. Fogg also broke up seven passes.
The Steelers needed another body at cornerback with Ike Taylor likely to be limited this week in practice and Cortez Allen out for the rest of the season.
The Steelers placed Allen on injured reserve last Saturday to make room on the roster for outside linebacker Jarvis Jones on the 53-man roster. Jones had been on the injured reserve/designated to return list.
Allen had been working his way back from a broken thumb, but he practiced last week and had been listed on the Steelers’ final injury report of the week.
“He was really limited in terms of what he was able to do effectively because of the injury,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. “We had an opportunity to get Jarvis up. There was a need there particularly because of James Harrison’s injury. So those are some of the decisions that you have to make.
“Cortez has worked extremely hard working to get back to us and particularly with that club on his hand. But he largely was ineffective in terms of doing some of the things that he needed to do to play above the line. Given the situation at outside linebacker it was really a simple decision to make.”
James Harrison is expected to miss the Steelers’ 1 p..m. game ET Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals because of a knee injury, meaning Jones and Arthur Moats will split duties at right outside linebacker.
Moats had started at the position after Jones dislocated his right wrist in September before giving way to Harrison, who played all but three of the Steelers’ defensive snaps last Sunday in a 35-32 loss to the New Orleans Saints.
Jones, the Steelers’ first round draft pick in 2013, recorded two sacks before going down in the Steelers’ 37-19 win at Carolina.
Both defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and linebackers coach Keith Butler said Jones was starting to come into his own before getting hurt.
“He improved steadily last year. You can go from the middle of the  season on, and he was playing really good football,” LeBeau said last Thursday. “He was playing pretty good football [this year]. He got hurt early [in the season]. He was looking good in camp. He’s probably going to be a little rusty, but he’s a developing, good football player.”
The Steelers placed cornerback Cortez Allen on injured reserve to make room for Jones on the 53-man roster.
Allen had surgery to repair a broken thumb last month, but the fourth-year veteran practiced every day last week and had been listed as probable for the Bengals game on the Steelers final injury report of the week.
@ScottBrown_ESPN: I think it's fair to say that the Steelers' window with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is starting to close a little though I think he still has five good seasons after this one. The Steelers still have time to maximize the seasons in which they have a franchise quarterback and they have succeeded in their stating goal of surrounding Roethlisberger with talent on offense. The key to the Steelers becoming legitimate Super Bowl contenders again is getting better -- and in a hurry -- on defense. That unit is a mess and the Steelers better have hit on players such as linebackers Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephon Tuitt in their two most recent drafts. They also have to make cornerback more of a priority in the draft and have to hope that Cortez Allen can be salvaged after this disastrous season. A lot of things have to break right for the defense to rise to the level at which the Steelers demand from their defenses. That is why the offense is going to have to continue to carry the Steelers, and it all starts with No. 7.
@ScottBrown_ESPN: I'm not sure if Brett Keisel has any interest in coaching and I'm wondering if his future isn't as an analyst or some sort of media personality. Keisel is so competitive that he worries about finding something that challenges him as football has done. Maybe coaching will provide that if he chooses that path. I wouldn't assume he is done playing, though. Keisel, who turned 36 in September, will have to decide if he wants to go through the grueling rehabilitation that will be required for him to return. If anyone can come back from a serious injury at an advanced football age it is Keisel. That is why I'm guessing he will weigh his options carefully before making a decision on the future.
@ScottBrown_ESPN: As I wrote in an earlier post, a lot of things have to break right for the Steelers on defense. The players in which they have invested high draft picks in recent years have to pan out. They Steelers also need to go heavy on defense in the 2015 draft and if they don't hit a home run they at least have to bang out a triple. As for the second part of your question, I'm not among those who advocate a change at defensive coordinator. First, Dick LeBeau has forgotten more football than most people will ever know and he is still sharp and physically fit. LeBeau isn't the problem as far as struggles the Steelers have experienced on defense. He simply doesn't have much to work with right now, a problem that has been exacerbated by the injuries that have forced the Steelers to patch together a defense on a weekly basis. If LeBeau wants to continue coaching after this season, I see no reason to make a change at defensive coordinator. Given his resume and how much his players want to succeed for LeBeau, he is part of the solution and certainly isn't the problem.
@ScottBrown_ESPN: It will be because he is so respected by his teammates and coaches but I don't put too much into such motivation making much of a difference. Sure, Keisel's teammates might practice and prepare a little better because they want to win for him. But that motivation won't stop the run or produce consistent pressure on the opposing quarterback or stop the long pass plays that have burned the Steelers in recent weeks. Keisel would be the first one to say that.
Starting outside linebacker James Harrison is doubtful for the 1 p.m. ET game after hurting his knee last Sunday. With Harrison expected to miss his first game since re-signing with the Steelers in September, the Steelers will likely go with a rotation of Arthur Moats and Jarvis Jones at right outside linebacker.
Jones has been out since dislocating his right wrist in a Sept. 21 win at Carolina, but defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said Thursday there is a "good chance" that Jones plays against the Bengals.
The Steelers will be without a starter on the other side of the ball as right tackle Marcus Gilbert has been ruled out for Sunday because of an ankle injury. Gilbert, who said he is also dealing with a knee injury, will miss his second consecutive game and third one this season.
Mike Adams will start in his place at right tackle.
All of the other players on the Steelers’ final injury report of the week are listed as probable for the first of two games they will play against the AFC North-leading Bengals this month. That includes linebacker Ryan Shazier (ankle), nose tackle Steve McLendon (shoulder), and cornerback Cortez Allen (thumb).
The Bengals will be without Vontaze Burfict, their top linebacker, as he has been ruled out for Sunday because of a knee injury.
That explains why five of the six cornerbacks on the Bengals' 53-man roster are former first-round draft picks, including Darqueze Dennard, Cincinnati's top pick last May.
Indeed they have, and it is no coincidence that the Bengals have allowed the fewest touchdown passes (11) in the NFL while the 6.3 yards they are yielding per passing attempt is tied with the Kansas City Chiefs for the third-best in the NFL.
Given the state of the Steelers' cornerbacks maybe it is time for Pittsburgh to look into using Lewis' model.
The Steelers haven't drafted a cornerback in the first round since Chad Scott in 1997.
Of the six cornerbacks on their roster, three (Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen and B.W. Webb) were fourth-round draft picks. One was a fifth-round draft pick (William Gay) and the other two (Brice McCain and Antwon Blake) were undrafted free agents.
Throw Webb in with Blake and McCain and half of the cornerbacks on the Steelers' roster were released by other teams before signing with Pittsburgh.
The Bengals offer a striking contrast to the Steelers' approach in regard to acquiring cornerbacks with two first-round picks starting in Leon Hall and Terence Newman and another first-rounder, Adam Jones, playing nickel back.
The Bengals are so stacked at cornerback that Dennard and Dre Kirkpatrick, another first-round pick, have had struggled to get on the field beyond special teams.
Think the Steelers would like to have that problem?
"I have to sometimes pick their lip up off the ground because they're not getting to play as much on defense," Lewis said of the Bengals' two young cornerbacks. "They're going to be very, very good NFL corners. We obviously have tried to continue to develop our guys in the back end through draft picks and some of the guys we've acquired. We've been fortunate that way."
McLendon has missed the last two games – and four games total – because of a nagging shoulder injury. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said McLendon has to regain strength in his injured shoulder before he is cleared to play again.
McLendon said he plans to practice Thursday after taking part in drills Wednesday.
“I felt good at practice,” the fifth-year veteran said. “It felt good to be at practice.”
Also participating fully in the Steelers’ first practice of the week were linebacker Ryan Shazier (ankle) and cornerbacks Cortez Allen (thumb), Brice McCain (hamstring) and Ike Taylor (shoulder).
Right tackle Marcus Gilbert (ankle) and outside linebacker James Harrison (knee) did not practice because of injuries and strong safety Troy Polamalu was out held out drills because of an illness.
Gilbert, who didn’t play in the Steelers’ 35-32 loss to the New Orleans Saints last Sunday, said he got some work in individual drills Wednesday. Gilbert is cautiously optimistic that he will play Sunday even though he said he is also working through a knee injury.
“Tomorrow hopefully there will be some [practice] reps and Friday get more reps and Saturday see where we are,” Gilbert said.
Practice took an interesting turn when newly signed defensive end Clifton Geathers got into a fight with several of the Steelers’ offensive linemen.
”He was probably working his butt off in his mind, but my story is that we just played (90) snaps last game. There is no sense in going that hard in practice,” starting left guard Ramon Foster said. “I saw him push one of our guys to the ground and I lost it.”
Center Maurkice Pouncey and tackle Mike Adams jumped into the fray before the two, as well as Foster, were separated from Geathers.
“Just doing my job,” Geathers said after practice. “It’s all good. We’ve got an understanding; it’s over with.”
Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger 90.
Running backs: Le'Veon Bell 88, Will Johnson 11, Dri Archer 3.
Wide receivers: Antonio Brown 88, Markus Wheaton 64, Lance Moore 48, Martavis Bryant 32, Darrius Heyward-Bey 7.
Tight ends: Heath Miller 90, Matt Spaeth 18, Michael Palmer 1.
Offensive line: Kelvin Beachum 90, Ramon Foster 90, Maurkice Pouncey 90, David DeCastro 90, Mike Adams 90.
Analysis: The Steelers will lean heavily on Bell -- who played all but two of the Steelers’ offensive snaps against the Saints -- the rest of the season. Archer has yet to show that he can be a viable complement to Bell and the rookie third-round draft pick will get minimal opportunities as long as Bell stays healthy. ... Johnson helped spring Bell for early runs of 12 and 18 runs but the fullback did not see much action in the second half with the Steelers playing from behind. ... Bryant played just over a third of the Steelers’ offensive snaps and caught just one pass for 23 yards. The rookie wideout has experienced some growing pains the last two games. He didn’t use his size to fight for a jump ball in the end zone against the Tennessee Titans and Bryant dropped a catchable pass that would have given the Steelers a touchdown early in the second quarter against the Saints.
Defensive line: Cameron Heyward 49, Brett Keisel 33, Cam Thomas 32, Stephon Tuitt 28, Daniel McCullers 6.
Linebackers: Lawrence Timmons 56, Jason Worilds 56, James Harrison 53, Sean Spence 35, Vince Williams 15, Arthur Moats 3.
Cornerbacks: William Gay 56, Ike Taylor 56, Antwon Blake 18, Brice McCain 4.
Safeties: Mike Mitchell 54, Troy Polamalu 51, Will Allen 11.
Analysis: Tuitt saw his most extensive action of the season and the rookie defensive end will play significant snaps in the Steelers’ last four games with Keisel expected to miss the rest of the season because of a triceps injury. … McCullers, the rookie nose tackle, is not ready for a bigger role and he has played limited snaps despite the absence of Steve McLendon the last two games. … Williams started at weakside inside linebacker with the Steelers opening the game in their nickel package. But Spence got the bulk of the playing time with Ryan Shazier missing a third consecutive game because of a high-ankle sprain. … Gay and Taylor played every defensive snap as McCain, the nickel back, went down early in the game with a hamstring injury. If McCain is unable to play Sunday at Cincinnati it will be interesting to see if the Steelers give Cortez Allen a chance to challenge Blake for the job at nickel back.
Gilbert and linebacker Ryan Shazier are among the Steelers players who have been de-activated for Pittsburgh’s 1 p.m. ET game against the New Orleans Saints.
Mike Adams will start in place of Gilbert for the second time this season. Sean Spence and Vince Williams will play in place of Shazier at weakside inside linebacker.
Shazier, who had been questionable for today's game, will miss his third consecutive contest because of a high ankle sprain.
Starting nose tackle Steve McLendon (shoulder) and cornerback Cortez Allen (thumb) also won’t play today because of injuries.
The Steelers’ healthy scratches include wide receiver Justin Brown, cornerback B.W. Webb and quarterback Landry Jones.
Gilbert has not practiced since leaving drills Wednesday after colliding with left guard Ramon Foster. The fourth-year veteran is listed as questionable on the Steelers’ final injury report of the week along with rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier.
Shazier, who has missed the past two games because of a high-ankle sprain, practiced on Friday and is likely to dress for the 1 p.m. ET game against the Saints barring a setback.
Nose tackle Steve McLendon (shoulder) and cornerback Cortez Allen (thumb) have been ruled out for the game.
Strong safety Troy Polamalu (knee) and cornerback Ike Taylor (forearm) are listed as probable for Sunday and are expected to play.
Polamalu has missed the past two games because of a sprained knee. Taylor has missed eight games since breaking his forearm in a Sept. 21 win at Carolina.
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said of Taylor's anticipated return, "We're a better team when he's in there."
Gilbert left practice Wednesday after colliding with left guard Ramon Foster. If the fourth-year veteran is unable to play against the visiting New Orleans Saints, Mike Adams will start at right tackle.
Strong safety Troy Polamalu did not practice as he was given another veteran's day off. Polamalu is expected to play against the Saints even though he has missed the last two games because of a sprained knee.
Linebacker Ryan Shazier (ankle), nose tackle Steve McLendon (shoulder) and cornerback Cortez Allen (thumb) were limited in drills.
Shazier practiced fully for the first time since sustaining a high ankle sprain at the beginning of the month.
The injury cost the first-round pick the last two games after he missed four contests earlier this season because of a sprained knee.
"I feel like it's getting a lot better," Shazier said of his injured ankle. "It's a little sore but I'm just going to listen to whatever the trainers and doctors tell me and be ready."
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Shazier has to show this week that he is healthy and sharp from a mental standpoint after missing so much practice time this season.
"It's definitely coming back to me," Shazier said of the defense, "and the more I'm out there things are becoming a lot easier."
Cornerback Ike Taylor (forearm) practiced fully for the second day this week, keeping him on track to return Sunday. Cornerback Cortez Allen (thumb) and safety Shamarko Thomas (hamstring) also practiced.
Starting nose tackle Steve McLendon (shoulder) and right tackle Marcus Gilbert (ankle) were limited in drills while wide receiver Martavis Bryant didn't practice because of an illness.
Strong safety Troy Polamalu, defensive end Brett Keisel and tight end Heath Miller were all given veteran's days off.
Polamalu has missed the last two games because of a sprained knee but the eight-time Pro Bowler is expected to play.
“Charles Woodson's an inspiration to me,” Taylor said of the Oakland Raiders safety. “I always say there’s a few guys on a team that you can’t (count) as far as age factor and I truly believe that about Charles Woodson. He’s still playing at a high level.”
That Taylor called the 38-year-old Woodson an “inspiration” confirmed that retirement is anything but on Taylor’s mind even though he is in his 12th NFL season and in the final year of his contract with the Steelers.
It is something they at least have to consider.
Cortez Allen, the supposed successor to Taylor as the Steelers’ No. 1 cornerback, has been a disaster and turned into a reclamation project. Antwon Blake has emerged as a young cornerback with promise after replacing Allen as the Steelers’ nickel back.
But beyond that the Steelers don’t have a lot of young talent at cornerback unless they found something in B.W. Webb, who they claimed off waivers in early September but has only played special teams in the limited snaps he has received.
Taylor is set to return from a broken forearm he sustained in late September, and the injury cost the 6-2, 195-pounder eight games.
But it also saved some tread on his legs while also proving again that Taylor is the consummate professional.
His injury was so gruesome that it initially looked like a season-ending one. That Taylor will make it back this week, barring a setback, with five games left in the season is a testament to his work ethic.
And the work he puts in year-round makes it completely plausible that Taylor might be able to slow down the aging process when it comes to his football career.
Plus, a the Steelers had couple of 36-year-olds return this season in defensive end Brett Keisel and outside linebacker James Harrison, and both have been critical additions to a defense ravaged by injuries.
Why can’t Taylor play at a level similar to what Keisel and Harrison have given the Steelers as a 35-year-old next season?
“Ike and I have had a running joke a number of years but there’s a lot of truth to it,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “In our football game, particularly at this level, I tell him every day that he’s got to fight to prove his love for this game and his capability. He’s been doing it for a long time and he doesn’t run away from it.”
Far from it. Taylor, who has played 16 games in nine of his 12 seasons with the Steelers, embraces the challenge -- just as Woodson, an eight-time Pro Bowler, has done throughout his decorated career.
“I try to compare myself not to what he’s done in the NFL because he’s a Hall of Famer,” Taylor said, “but just similarities as far as being healthy, making plays and proving every year his love for the game.”
Rookie Daniel McCullers is expected to make his first career start in place of McLendon, and it will be something off a homecoming for the 6-foot-7, 352-pounder McCullers.
He played his college ball at the University of Tennessee before the Steelers took McCullers with the second of two sixth-round draft picks in May.
It will be interesting to see how many snaps McCullers plays against the 2-7 Titans.
Defensive end Cam Thomas will probably also play nose tackle at Tennessee. The Steelers could also use their nickel package in which the nose tackle comes off the field more.
In addition to McLendon, safety Shamarko Thomas will miss a third consecutive game because of a hamstring injury.
The Steelers are expected to get safety Ross Ventrone back after he missed the 20-13 loss to the New York Jets on Sunday because of a hamstring injury. Ventrone, who had filled in for Thomas on special teams, practiced all week.
He is listed as probable on the Steelers’ final injury report of the week, as is cornerback Cortez Allen (thumb). Allen was limited in drills on Friday, but practiced fully on Saturday.
The Steelers will be without strong safety Troy Polamalu (knee), linebacker Ryan Shazier (ankle) and cornerback Ike Taylor (forearm) against the Titans.
All were ruled out earlier this week.
Defensive line coach John Mitchell told Steelers Nation Radio on Thursday that rookie nose tackle Daniel McCullers will make his first career start on Monday night.
McCullers has played in three games this season, and the 6-7, 352-pounder has been credited with one tackle.
“He’s learning the techniques necessary to play in the National Football League,” Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. “He was the biggest guy in the draft so size has never been a problem for him. He’s got a lot of strength, and I think he’s got a good future. He’s a good, hard-working young man. We’re pleased to have him.”
Cornerback Cortez Allen (thumb) and safety Shamarko Thomas (hamstring) practiced on a limited basis on Friday. Safety Ross Ventrone (hamstring) practiced for the second consecutive day after missing the Steelers’ 20-13 loss to the New York Jets last Sunday.
Strong safety Troy Polamalu (knee), linebacker Ryan Shazier (ankle) and cornerback Ike Taylor have already been declared out for the game at Tennessee.
The Titans may be without one of their top receivers when they host the Steelers.
Tight end Delanie Walker, who was knocked out of the Titans’ loss to the Baltimore Ravens last Sunday with a concussion, did not practice on Friday.
Walker leads Tennessee with 512 receiving yards and is second on the team with 38 catches.