PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers paid Cortez Allen last fall to take over the shutdown cornerback role that Ike Taylor handled for the better part of a decade.
The Steelers hardly got their money's worth, and Allen knows it.
A 2014 that began with a five-year, $25 million contract ended with Allen on injured reserve and his confidence decreased.
The smart, physical play that highlighted his breakout 2013 crumbled into an avalanche of missed assignments and eventually missed time.
It would be easy to call the experience humbling, but that would assume Allen needed to be humbled. Humility has never been an issue for the 26-year-old Citadel graduate.
Production, however, is another matter. And Allen is only too aware that two interceptions and a spot on the bench isn't what Pittsburgh had in mind when the franchise dug into its wallet to keep him from hitting free agency.
That doesn't mean Allen spent the offseason moping. It wouldn't do any good.
"I'll never say: 'woe is me.' I've never been that kind of guy, and I'll never be that kind of guy," Allen said. "I'm going to do whatever I can to help my teammates, regardless of how I feel."
Don't get him wrong, everything feels better than it did six months ago, when the Steelers put Allen and his surgically repaired thumb on injured reserve to end a disastrous season.
While some of his teammates spent the winter and early spring in Pittsburgh, Allen stayed away in search of peace of mind and the form that made him one of the team's most pleasant surprises in 2013.
Secondary coach Carnell Lake didn't mind Allen's absence. Every defensive back gets beat. The good ones find a way to not let one play affect the next. It's a vital part of Allen's development, one helped by getting as far away — physically and mentally — from 2014 as possible.
Lake encouraged Allen to "get some sunshine and kind of let those green buds sprout and come on back."
The Allen that showed up for the first week of organized team activities this week understands Pittsburgh needs him to take a step forward, particularly with Taylor in retirement.
The Steelers would prefer to have the rookies get comfortable in the NFL instead of thrusting them onto the field too soon. An improved version of Allen would help.
"I expect to be better in all aspects," Allen said.
Particularly when it comes to looking for the ball. The first half of 2014 was littered with plays where Allen would be in position only to get beat when he failed to turn his head around in time.
By the middle of the year he'd been supplanted by Brice McCain and spent a Monday night win over Tennessee standing on the sideline watching as Pittsburgh's season went on without him. A week later, he was on injured reserve.
It led to some soul-searching. Fortunately Allen had a guide in Taylor.
"Ike always emphasized to be honest with yourself and how you played, your preparation, everything you do," Allen said. "Because if you're not honest in how you correct things and lie to yourself, how can you correct things and get better? So, growing up with Ike, I learned how to be a professional."
Developing thick skin is part of the job. And Allen could always rely on his teammates, who never hesitated to drop him a line and never wavered in their support.
"I didn't doubt him at all," Blake said. "Everyone goes through a rough patch every once in a while."
Allen stressed he can "be as good as I want to be." That includes getting back to a habit he'd gotten away from in Pittsburgh. The Citadel isn't exactly a factory for NFL players.
Allen proved to be an unlikely success story by becoming his own best critic. His goal is to test himself so much that when opponents do it in the fall, he's prepared.
"It's a challenge that I fully expect," he said. "So, whether or not it's difficult, it's my job and it's what I do and it's what I love doing."