PITTSBURGH -- Marcus Allen is a player I expected more from in 2020.
Everyone talks about Dan McCuller's make-or-break season, but what about Allen? A fifth-round pick with three games played in two seasons. Who may have found a new home within the defense.
Allen has on final season remaining on his 2-year, $1.2 million contract with the Steelers. Until now, he's been used as a backup, spending most of his time developing on the practice squad.
Where he's struggled has been coverage. Allen, a quality tackler, contains the speed and athleticism to keep up with nearly any receiver or tight end.
What he lacks is the natural ability to be able to read the ball.
Walking into the locker room one afternoon last year, I ran across Allen talking to former teammate Cameron Kelly about taking that next step in coverage.
The two discussed working on their skills together during practice. The next day, Kelly was cut for off the field reasons.
The year went on, and Allen found himself finishing the season on the active roster. He appeared on one game and played seven special teams snaps after being promoted.
Now, let's move to 2020.
Training camp brought a rookie safety in Antoine Brooks Jr. It also added Curtis Riley and John Battle. And it moved Allen.
"I think this is a big year for Marcus [Allen], and he's taking advantage of a lot of different things," Steelers defensive backs coach Tom Bradley said earlier this week. "One thing, he's playing a lot faster this year. You can tell he really understands the system. He's very versatile. We can do a lot of different things with him in our package. Marcus is really coming on strong during this camp."
That versatility has the Steelers believing Allen could be the answer for a different role on this defense. As the team released Leo Lewis, they left themselves with four inside linebackers - two with defensive snaps on their stat sheet.
On Thursday, Pittsburgh decided Allen would join that mix at inside linebacker.
Inside linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky was continually talking to Allen, providing tips and conferring with the third-year player. Despite the team's pool report listing the four times Benny Snell got the best of Allen in backs on backers, it was a successful day at a new position.
When I asked head coach Mike Tomlin if Allen has shown him enough to feel comfortable playing on the inside, his eyebrow's lifted.
"I have," Tomlin said with slight surprise and confidence. "And it goes beyond just specifically that position. I think he has shown an understanding of how he is communicating, whether it is at a linebacker or safety. His pre-snap communication skills and the way that he adjusts shows growth and development in terms of our overall scheme and that allows him to display the position flexibility. Marcus has always had the physical skills to do both jobs, but intellectual skills, the overall understand of the big picture allows those things to come out in a football way now."
Allen brings a 6'2, 215-pound frame to the position group. He's 320 tackles at Penn State make you believe there's little worry when it comes to finding the football. And as long as he can adjust to life coming quicker upfront, he resembles an upgraded version of Mark Barron.
The Steelers have searched three years for their hybrid inside linebacker. It failed with Morgan Burnett. It failed with Barron. Now, they're taking a piece they've wanted to make work for three seasons and put him into the mix.
Marcus Allen may have found his place within the Steelers defense.
"A guy who can get in the box, Marcus [Allen] can play in space," Bradley said. "He's really developed. He's one of the guys this preseason that has really come forward with his game. He's playing faster. He understands what we are doing, and because of that, we're going to be able to do a lot of different things with Marcus, Through the rest of this season, we are going to figure out what he can do and what he can't do as these next couple of weeks progress."