PITTSBURGH — The mantle was already in the process of being passed.
It started last fall, when the Pittsburgh Steelers opted to divide the field in two and give one side to defensive back Ike Taylor and the other to Cortez Allen.
For years it had been the athletic and charismatic Taylor's responsibility to find the opponent's top receiver and spend 60 minutes chasing him around. The Steelers ceded part of the job to Allen halfway through last season, with promising results.
Pittsburgh saw enough to sign the quiet Citadel graduate to a lengthy extension on the eve of the 2014 regular season while Taylor took a significant pay cut to return for a 12th year at one of the league's most unforgiving positions.
The evolution from fourth-round prospect to No. 1 cornerback ended last Sunday when Taylor was on the field in Charlotte with his right forearm broken. There's no timetable for Taylor's return and there's no time for Allen to mourn the loss of his mentor either.
"It's painful and shocking but we live by a standard — not just the DBs but the team as a whole — that when one man goes down, another man has to fill the void as if nothing happened," Allen said.
While veteran William Gay will take Taylor's spot on the outside when Pittsburgh (2-1) hosts rebuilding Tampa Bay (0-3) on Sunday, Allen will be the one tasked with serving as the "shutdown corner" even if the moniker is one he tries to brush off.
"I feel very comfortable being in this role," Allen said. "But there is still a lot of room to grow, a lot of learning I have to do. I consider myself a young guy."
Maybe, but the 25-year-old is no longer the youngest guy in the room. Technically he is the third-longest tenured defensive back on the roster behind Taylor and safety Troy Polamalu, though Gay and safety Will Allen are both in their second tours with the team.
Either way, he is the highest-paid cornerback after agreeing to a five-year, $26-million extension less than 24 hours before the season opener against Cleveland. The deal gave him long-term job security, but also raised his profile.
It is heady territory for the 6-foot-1, 196-pound player considered a prospect when the Steelers took him in the fourth round of the 2011 draft.
The Citadel isn't exactly a football factory. Yet coach Mike Tomlin liked Allen's instinctive play and sure tackling. His frame also gives him a fighting chance against today's supersized receivers such as Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson, who will still have 4 inches and 40 pounds on Allen when they line up across the line of scrimmage on Sunday.
It's a challenge Allen welcomes. He better, because it's going to be the norm with no other healthy cornerback on the roster over 6 feet.
"All of us are fully capable of competing against anyone in the league," Allen said.
Only one, however, carries the weight of Allen's contract. He's aware the number of zeroes on his paycheck has elevated the expectations. He's OK with the trade-off even if early results have been mixed. He gave up a touchdown to Carolina tight end Gregg Olson last week, but he's also fourth on the team with 16 tackles and second in passes defensed.
Of course, passes defensed is also sometimes code for "interceptions missed." Allen has four career picks, numbers the Steelers would like to see tick upward.
"It's been up and down a bit," defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "But he has tremendous athletic skill and great ball skills, but sometimes he doesn't let those ball skills come to play. I think that once he gets over that final hurdle that you'll start seeing him ... make those types of plays."
The next step in Allen's growth is the ability to develop a short-term memory. The rules are geared to giving the offense the advantage. Every defensive back will get beat. Not letting one bad play roll into another is vitally important.
It's a lesson Gay took years to learn, one he can see Allen is heartily embracing.
"Mentally I think he's grown," Gay said. "Physically I think he's always had it. He can jump with anybody. He's just as tall as Ike. It's just the mental part that he's showing he's better at. I told him before the season, 'You're the No. 1 corner now, are you ready for that?' and his answer was 'Yeah.'"
Just don't expect Allen to become the next Taylor in the locker room. Where the imminently quotable Taylor never met a microphone he didn't like, the reticent Allen sometimes his thoughtful answers with the occasional "sir." The Steelers are happy to let others do the talking so long as Allen does the playing.
"There's a lot of football to be played out on that island," Gay said. "I think he's going to be one of the great No. 1 corners out here for a long time."
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