PITTSBURGH - Cortez Allen turned to his right and saw nobody in green within 30 yards of him. He decided to ease off the gas and enjoy the moment.
When the Pittsburgh Steelers' cornerback reached the Green Bay 10, his sprint had turned to a jog. When he crossed the goal line at the end of his 40-yard interception return for a touchdown in last week's 38-31 win over the Packers, he was practically walking.
Allen wasn't showboating, exactly. That's not really his style. Instead, his stroll into the end zone was a chance to savor a moment he's not sure would ever arrive in the midst of a season in which nothing has gone according to plan for Allen or his team.
Slated as a starter at the beginning of training camp, Allen found himself sidelined with a lingering knee injury then eventually demoted in favor of William Gay because of inconsistent play. He's resurrected his season - and perhaps his career - over the last two months, capped by his momentum-shifting pick six against Green Bay as the Steelers (7-8) kept their slim playoff hopes alive.
"It has been a bit of an up/down kind of thing this year but you keep pushing, you keep fighting," Allen said. "I'm just trying to get better each day and control what's happening in front of me."
Even if that action isn't always pleasant.
The Steelers believed enough in Allen last spring that they made no real attempt to re-sign Keenan Lewis, who was coming off a breakout year in which he finished second in the NFL in passes defensed.
The 6-foot-1, 196-pound Allen is built in the mold of longtime Pittsburgh cornerback Ike Taylor. Physical and relentless, Allen spent his first two seasons in the league winning over his teammates with his textbook tackling and his ability to make things happen when he's around the ball.
He arrived at St. Vincent College in late-July as the starter in waiting. It didn't last long. He underwent minor right knee surgery a week into training camp and his three-week recovery period dragged on longer than expected. He wasn't sharp in the opener against Tennessee and eventually lost his job to Gay in Week 6 against Baltimore.
While Allen won't say he returned to the field too quickly, he acknowledges it took awhile for his instincts to kick back in.
"When you play this position, you need that work," he said. "You need that test, getting back used to the things that you're good at and the things you've been doing so long. You need to have as many opportunities as possible."
Yet the Steelers ran out of time during their 0-4 start. Gay provided a steadier option and Allen found himself working in the slot, a place where he thrived at times in 2012. Still, even Gay understood that his time working in front of Allen was limited.
"He can cover guys, whether it's a wideout, tight end or back, and he has the willingness to slam into the line to stop a ball carrier," Gay said. "He's a good, physical player, and I believe he'll be a good one for a long time."
Allen stepped back into his starting spot on the outside three weeks ago against Miami then spent 60 minutes shutting down former teammate Mike Wallace, who was limited to two receptions for 19 yards. The Dolphins rallied for a 34-28 win, but Allen's ability to keep the speedy Wallace in check didn't go unnoticed.
He did the same thing a week later against Cincinnati. Lined up at times against Bengals star A.J. Green, Allen didn't allow Green to get loose until the Steelers were well on their way to a 30-20 victory. Green finished with nine receptions for 93 yards, most of them coming when the game was well out of reach.
In a position where a short-term memory is an essential character trait, Allen has won praise from his teammates for his maturity.
"Cortez has come along after going through some rough spots earlier in the season, but we've all had some rough spots here and there," safety Troy Polamalu said. "But, certainly, he's been playing good enough to win. He's picked things up a lot."
Allen certainly did on Sunday in a game that mirrored his season. He was beaten by Green Bay's Jarrett Boykins for a 5-yard touchdown in the first quarter but earned his revenge - and then some - when Packers quarterback Matt Flynn tried to hit Boykins on a quick hitter early in the third quarter.
Flynn's pass fluttered through the air after being clipped by teammate Andrew Quarless while trying to throw. Allen tipped the ball in the air then grabbed it before sprinting the other way for his first career touchdown. There was even a hint of a smile as he crossed the goal line, the closest thing to a celebration Allen will get.
"If I smiled," he said, "I didn't notice it."