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Breakout Player to Watch: Cortez Allen

With Keenan Lewis gone in free agency, Cortez Allen has a major chance to step up. (Nick Wass/AP) With Keenan Lewis gone in free agency, Cortez Allen has a major chance to step up. (Nick Wass/AP)

As we power through the summer toward training camps, Chris Burke will highlight players that interest him this season for various reasons. This week, he's looking at three players poised to take a leap in 2013.

Cortez Allen needed 14 games last season (and 29 in his NFL career) to nab his first interception. How exactly that interception came about offers a glimpse into the potential Pittsburgh believes Allen has at cornerback.

Allen opened the play (which you can watch here) lined up against A.J. Green, as he was for much of Pittsburgh's Week 16 loss to the Bengals. Via Pro Football Focus, Green was targeted 10 times during that game while being covered by Allen, resulting in six catches, but just 60 yards and no touchdowns.

His pick, though, came on a pass intended for slot receiver Andrew Hawkins, who was lined up next to Green on this particular play. Allen dropped at the snap (as Troy Polamalu provided extra attention on Green), then made a read and jumped in front of Hawkins for the INT.

It's that quickness and playmaking that the Steelers believe Allen can provide on a regular basis in 2013, given the chance to play every down.

Pressed up against the cap, Pittsburgh had no real shot to re-sign former starting CB Keenan Lewis, who inked a five-year, $25.5 million deal with the Saints. Allen's presence made that loss a lot easier to swallow. The Steelers plan to give Allen every chance to lock down a starting spot, despite signing William Gay (a Pittsburgh CB from 2007-11) this offseason.

Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reemphasized the Steelers' plans last month, tweeting: "#Steelers plan to use Cortez Allen in slot and bring William Gay in as corner in the nickel. Allen has speed to cover WR and size to cover TE."

Allen is similar in size to Ike Taylor, Pittsburgh's other projected starting corner -- Allen stands 6-foot-1, 196 pounds; Taylor's at 6-2, 195. Those measurements give both players an edge on Gay (5-10, 190), part of why, as Kaboly points out, the Steelers may try to utilize Allen against tight ends on occasion.

Though he did not start seeing an increase in his playing time until Taylor was injured late last season, Allen found himself matched up with Green, Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, Josh Gordon and Danario Alexander, among others, over his final four games. Injuries and a lack of depth limited Pittsburgh's other options, but the coaching staff did not hesitate to trot Allen out against the opposition's top receiving talent during games with playoff implications.

Despite being on the field for only about half the Steelers' defensive snaps in 2012, Allen graded out as a top-20 cornerback on Pro Football Focus -- one spot below Antonio Cromartie, who played at an extremely high level in Darrelle Revis' absence. Allen also held QBs to a 68.5 passer rating on throws in his direction, per PFF, the 14th-best cornerback mark in football.

Translating all that out to a full season, as a full-time starter, will be a challenge for the third-year pro out of The Citadel.

But a healthy Taylor should go a long way toward assisting Allen's development. Taylor missed the final four games of last season, which in turn forced Allen into the lineup (and to match up against guys like Green). When healthy, though, the 33-year-old Taylor is Pittsburgh's top corner. He likely would draw the opposition's No. 1 receiver in most man-to-man coverages, freeing up Allen to deal with the No. 2 guy or bump over to the slot.

That distinction between the No. 1 and No. 2 job is key in the AFC North because the division boasts very few proven complementary receivers. Baltimore will spend training camp trying to find a starter alongside Torrey Smith, while Cincinnati will do the same with Green; Cleveland has a number of options but most are relatively unproven.

So, on paper as of early June, the Steelers could have the matchup edge in the WR-vs.-CB duel, thanks to the experience Allen gained in 2012.

All of the Steelers' plans could change again with one key injury in the secondary, but a starting group of Allen, Taylor, Polamalu and Ryan Clark would insulate Allen from too many unfavorable one-on-ones. The team's unique pass rush serves a similar purpose, forcing quarterbacks to get rid of the football quickly, often limiting how long Pittsburgh's corners must stay with their men.

Lewis delivered a very steady and impressive performance for the Steelers last season, in his one and only year as a starter. They're confident that Allen can elevate his game, as Lewis did in 2012, when dropped into the regular starting lineup.

It's a small sample size, but what we've seen from Allen thus far indicates that he might be able to pull that off, too.

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