While a lot of pieces around him on the Steeler defense have come and gone, Ike Taylor has been one of the constants for Pittsburgh. He stepped into the starting role nine years ago and made it a habit of covering No. 1 receivers. Wherever the top opposing receiver went, Taylor followed. Boundary side, field side, it didn't matter.
His role in the defense began to change last season. As the year went on, Pittsburgh stopped matching him up with the opposing No. 1. The Steelers could begin to use third-year corner Cortez Allen in matchup role and that is a challenge he said he's ready for.
"I've always liked to challenge myself," Allen said, via the team website. "I've always wanted that challenge just to see how I match up. And it's always fun to go against talent like that. Ike's done it before me. Hopefully, one day I'll be in that position to be the level of player that he is. It's a day-by-day process. I'm just trying to learn as much as I can from him and the guys around me."
The move could happen sooner rather than later. At 33, Taylor struggled last season. He received a minus-8.4 Pro Football Focus grade, the fourth-worst grade for any corner who played more than 1,000 snaps. Allen graded out significantly better, despite playing through an ankle injury he suffered early in the season. Allen earned a plus-3.7 PFF grade, one year after grading out as one of the best corners in the league with a plus-9.8 mark.
Allen has flashed excellent coverage ability and ball skills during his career. He hasn't, however, been able to play at a high level on a consistent week-in, week-out basis. He limited opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating below 60 in nine games last season; that would be an excellent mark had opposing quarterbacks not racked up a passer rating over 100 against him four times, according to PFF.
The 25-year-old is heading into his fourth season and 2014 would be an ideal time for him to put it all together. Not only might the Steelers rely on him to play a bigger role, Allen is also entering the last year of his rookie contract. Proving he can match up with opposing No. 1 receivers on a weekly basis would likely provide a significant boost for his free agent stock.
Allen isn't the first young, talented cornerback to come through Pittsburgh. Others, including Keenan Lewis, have come in and played a No. 2 role next to Taylor before eventually moving on. At some point, someone will have to replace the 11-year veteran. That time may have finally come and Allen may be the player to do it.