For how good the Steelers looked last weekend, I hadn't been very enthusiastic at all about the team this week. The injuries, particularly the one to Ike Taylor, felt a little too much like week one of last season.
The time frame for recoveries is shorter. They came in the middle of a resounding victory, rather than a disappointing loss. They only affect one side of the ball. But they nonetheless felt similar.
Last year, Larry Foote was the older player expected to hold the fort at a thin position. Vince Williams, Terence Garvin, Marshall McFadden, Kion Wilson and Brian Rolle had all made plays in the preseason, giving the appearance of quality depth among the backups that made the roster, but none was proven. And besides, Foote had missed only three games to injury in 11 seasons, and Lawrence Timmons only two.
It was a reasonable bet that Foote could be counted on. But the defense scrambled all season to fill the hole left by his injury.
This season, the backups at cornerback haven't garnered the positive reviews that last year's ILBs did. And certainly a big part of that is that it's easier to get noticed positively as a linebacker than as a cornerback, perhaps more in Pittsburgh than anywhere else. But the team started the year with three players who have had success in the system and three guys who were basically castoffs from other teams. On paper, Taylor's injury looks tougher to overcome than Foote's.
If Pro Football Focus is your go-to resource, you might well think that Taylor is washed up and no big loss, and that William Gay is an upgrade.
But last season, when Cortez Allen was limited by injury in the first half of the season, the Steelers' game plan was to have Taylor shadow the opposing No. 1 receiver, while Gay was kept from many of the tougher matchups on the outside. In other words, they got very good play out of Gay by matching his assignments with his abilities, while Taylor took his lumps on the other side.
My best guess is that, while Gay is the better player, the Steelers will instead ask Allen to become the No. 1 corner they paid him to develop into, only on a quicker timeline. After all, why mess with Gay's role, when he has executed it so well? They didn't last season.
That's a bit of an unsettling proposition at this point. If Taylor's broken arm was the most cringeworthy moment of last week's game, the silver medal probably goes to Greg Olsen's 37-yard TD catch against coverage by Allen.
Not that Olsen is easy to cover. But it wasn't an isolated occurrence. An uncontested 15-yard catch by Philly Brown. Illegal contact against Kelvin Benjamin, giving an automatic conversion on 1st-and-20. And a couple other instances where he got beat badly but didn't get burned because the ball went somewhere else.
And it's plays like that that had me worried that Taylor's injury will result in a lasting vulnerability the team struggles to patch.
Allen, for his part, will always be compared to Lewis by Steelers fans, for obvious reasons. And it's the comparison that convinced me that Allen will rise to the occasion.
Allen has holes in his game. But, as two near-interceptions in the first two weeks show, he's got some pretty significant bright spots.
He's also ahead of where Lewis was after game three of the 2012 season, which is the relevant comparison. Lewis had more warts and less flash than Allen early in his fourth season.
Lewis had four career starts up to this point in his career, and none was particularly awe-inspiring. In between getting torched by Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer, that 2012 secondary managed to eke out a passable performance against Mark Sanchez and the Jets.
In fact, Lewis didn't really play well as a starter until the sixth game, against Cincinnati. And, playing next to a younger Taylor, he'd never really been matched up on a No. 1 receiver for significant snaps, and wouldn't be very often until Taylor was injured later in 2012.
Allen has the same physical tools and, by all accounts, a better head on his shoulders. He's half a year younger than Lewis at the same point in his career. And he's showed more at every stage of his pro career than Lewis had at the same point. This despite coming out of The Citadel rather than Oregon State.
None of which guarantees that Allen will be the better player. But when the guy who identified Lewis' talent in the draft and the guy who developed it in the pros decide they like this guy better, it's easy to see why. He's better now than Lewis was in 2012, better last year than Lewis was in 2011, and so forth.
That might get obscured by the fact that Allen has been playing on a struggling defense, while Lewis has moved on to greener pastures with a pair of first-round safeties last season, and a better pass rush that put up 49 sacks, which was fourth in the league, despite facing the fifth-fewest dropbacks.
Allen probably won't get that much help this season. But he can shore up a weakness that Lewis still had at this stage in his career.
Allen's worst plays against the Panthers came in off-man coverage, getting caught flat-footed, turning to run with the receiver too late. Either that, or he seems to overcompensate and give too much cushion, as seemed to be the case against Philly Brown and last season in surrendering a catch-and-run touchdown to Greg Jennings of the Vikings. In short, he just seems more comfortable and fluid in press coverage.
The same seemed true of Lewis early in 2012. He grew into his role during the season, with the advantage of playing opposite Taylor during one of the best stretches of Taylor's career.
Allen won't have that luxury. But having an accomplished veteran like Taylor on the sidelines, with nothing better to do than watch and critique, might actually be a better luxury to have.
Taylor might be back for a stretch run, if the team manages one. In the meantime, what the secondary needs is for Allen to do what he's done his whole career: everything Lewis has done, only sooner.