By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers have had the NFL’s top-ranked overall defense the past two seasons, and they’ve been No. 1 in pass defense as well.
There’s no secret to this success, according to veteran safety Will Allen. It’s Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake.
“He’s a former player here and a very intelligent man,” Allen said. “He prepares each player for what’s to come. He prepares the group very well and believes a lot in technique. He doesn’t necessarily harp on defensive schematics, but he works us hard on technique. So, that helps us tremendously. You can see that in our corner play over the years and how much it improved.
“The level of play has been a lot improved. The same with the safety play, covering, tackling, more attention to details. He stresses that stuff all the time, his wisdom of the game and his mentality. He’s a tough guy and a tough man. If you didn’t know him, he hardly says anything, but he’s a tough guy. He’s a competitor, and he exudes that throughout the room.”
Lake’s influence was especially noticeable on young corners like Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen, who saw their playing time and progress increase tremendously as the season wore on.
“I think (Lewis) has built a lot of confidence,” Allen said. “He’s playing the ball a lot better. He’s gotten better in his press technique. Again, we all can get better. The whole thing about corner is confidence. All those guys are elite athletes, the best athletes on the field. He’s tall. He’s long. He’s fast. He has all the tangible things to be a great corner. He can get better just as well all can.”
Lake also has helped veterans like Ike Taylor take their game to another level.
“Ike is one of the top corners in the league, probably top three, in my opinion,” Allen said. “I don’t think a lot of people give him his just due. You can’t look at a time where he has given up a deep ball this year. You can’t look at a time where he gave up one last year.
“To be that consistent is difficult. He has hardly even given up 12-yard routes. Ike has been tremendous for us. He helps us out a lot. He helps the pass rush out, and Keenan just follows his lead. Together, those two guys healthy, make our secondary and our defense great.”
Listen to Allen talk for just a few minutes, and one gets the idea that he has enjoyed his three seasons with the Steelers after six with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Sure, he played primarily on special teams until Ryan Mundy flopped in a substitute role for Troy Polamalu.
Allen came on during the second half of the season and started seven games at strong and free safety for Polamalu and Ryan Clark.
“Obviously, the coaches believed in me, and I was able to help the team the best way I could,” Allen said. “But that’s what I’m here for, to help the team win and help the team the best that I can. I’m just thankful for the opportunity. Still, there are many ways I can get better, that this team can get better.
“I don’t think that’s a cliché. We have to get better in critical moments of the game. (And) I think the turnovers, in general, were missing. We didn’t make enough. We didn’t make enough at all. We started getting them later in the season, and that helped our offense be more opportunistic.
“So, next year, I think we need to focus on that from day one,” Allen added. “To have the No. 1 defense and the No. 1 pass defense for two consecutive years is tremendous. I just think that we need to get our turnover ratio up.”
Allen is an unrestricted free agent, so there’s a chance that he won’t be with the Steelers next season.
“We’ll see what free agency holds,” Allen said. “I’m not sure what will happen. I’m just open right now to see what will happen. The Steelers organization is a great place. I really enjoyed my time here. I enjoyed the team. It was a lot of fun. I like to compete here. I love the fans. It’s a hard place to leave.
“Even if they let you go, it’s a hard place to leave. When March comes we’ll sit back and think about what decision to make. … I want to talk like I’ll be here, because I love it here. I love playing here, and I love playing for Coach Tomlin. So, we’ll see what happens. I know what it’s like to be somewhere else.
“I played six years in Tampa,” Allen added. “There were some good years, but there were some horrible years there. So, I know what it’s like to play for a great organization, too, here in Pittsburgh. So, to leave here would be horrible. But that’s the nature of the business, at times.”