LATROBE, Pa. — Cortez Allen and Jarvis Jones are not young anymore.
Not by NFL standards anyway. And they know it.
The Pittsburgh Steelers grabbed Jones in the first round two years ago and tasked the athletic if slightly undersized linebacker with becoming the latest link in a chain of pass rushers that stretches from James Harrison to Joey Porter to Greg Lloyd and beyond.
Pittsburgh gave Allen $25 million on the eve of the 2014 opener, a paycheck commensurate with the title of “shutdown cornerback,” a role the thoughtful Allen spent the first three seasons of his career apprenticing for under Ike Taylor.
The early returns on both investments were hardly promising.
The 26-year-old Allen lost his confidence, his starting job and eventually the latter portion of 2014 because of injury. The 25-year-old Jones appeared on the verge of a breakout last fall only to dislocate his wrist in Week 3 and never completely recover.
It was frustrating. It was disappointing. And now — Allen and Jones insist — it’s over.
If Pittsburgh’s overhauled defense wants to regain some of its former menace under new coordinator Keith Butler, they better be right. They now that too.
“If you ever played football before, you understand you’re not going to get every play,” Allen said. “You understand there’s no perfect game.”
The Steelers would happily settle for productive following a season in which they couldn’t get to the quarterback or get their hands on the ball while finishing in the bottom half of the league in nearly every major defensive category.
Now they’ll look to reclaim their swagger without longtime fixtures Taylor, safety Troy Polamalu and defensive end Brett Keisel.
Allen rediscovering the steady form he showed early in his career would help. So would Jones making the evolution from prospect to force.
Both players spent a portion of their offseason training alongside Harrison in Arizona, sessions that were as nourishing mentally as they were challenging physically.
“If you’re just around a guy like that, it’s inevitable that you just learn something,” Allen said.
Including a case study in perseverance.
Harrison was a practice squad player considered too short to thrive at outside linebacker before morphing his way into the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and one of the most feared hitters of his generation. At 37, he’s now the elder statesman to a group in which Allen and Jones are expected to be among the cornerstones.
Not that Jones wants to discuss the responsibility.
“I’m not going to put any expectations out there, which I do got on me but I’m going to keep that to myself, to keep motivating me,” Jones said. “I don’t really want to speak on it and tell everybody what I got going on.”
Jones figures he’s done far too much talking and far too little playmaking during a rocky adjustment to pro ball. He seemed ready to take a significant leap last summer only to have his season take an abrupt turn when Keisel’s helmet smashed into his wrist while Jones sacked Carolina’s Cam Newton on Sept. 21. Jones spent nine weeks on injured reserve and wasn’t that close to 100 percent when doctors gave him the OK to suit up.
At least Jones got on the field during Pittsburgh’s run to the AFC North title. Allen watched the end of the season in gray sweatpants after undergoing surgery in November for an injured thumb.
The injury in some ways was a gift, allowing Allen to begin the process of rebooting following a precipitous decline in play.
Defensive backs coach Carnell Lake encouraged Allen to “get some sunshine and let those green buds sprout” over the long winter. Allen was also part of a group text with the rest of the secondary that included near daily encouragement.
All that positive thinking seems to have paid off. Allen jumped a route then outwrestled All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown for a Ben Roethlisberger pass during 11-on-11 drills on Wednesday, though the ever-polite Citadel graduate admits the call might not have held up on replay after the ball squirted loose. Either way, it showcased the instincts that made the Steelers so big on Allen in the first place.
“I’ve proven that I can make plays,” Allen said. “I made plays. I’ve just got to stay healthy and do it.”
It’s a mantra Jones is relying on too. Like Allen, Jones appears energized. He didn’t buy a fake on a reverse to rookie wide receiver Sammie Coates on Thursday, chasing the speedy Coates into the awaiting arms of teammate Ryan Shazier.
The first meaningful snap of 2015 remains six weeks away. The steps Allen and Jones are making at Saint Vincent College are small, to be sure, but at least they’re forward. After spending much of last season in neutral, they’ll take it.
“There’s going to be ups and downs and it’s how you attack those situations as far as your perspective on it,” Allen said. “There’s always room for improvement. You take that and learn from it and you just try to get better.”
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