He had the celebration all planned.
“I was all ready to put up the O-H-I-O,” Will Allen said with a grin. “Oh yeah, I was gonna do it: O-H-I-O.”
And with that the Pittsburgh Steelers veteran safety got up from the seat he had taken in his locker in the visitors’ dressing room at FirstEnergy Stadium and — borrowing some animated choreography from the Village People — he extended his arms skyward and enacted the familiar Ohio State Buckeyes chant.
Flashing back on the moment, he had to laugh.
Instead of O-H-I-O, it had been, “Oooh Noooo!”
The former Wayne High School star and OSU All-American who’s now back with the Steelers had one of the most dynamic plays in Pittsburgh’s 27-11 victory over the Cleveland Browns Sunday.
Midway through the third quarter, Cleveland was facing a third-and-7 situation from the Pittsburgh 39-yard line when Steelers cornerback Will Gay blitzed and roughly sacked Jason Campbell, stripping the football from the upended Browns quarterback in the process.
Allen, meanwhile, fought through a block by fullback Chris Ogbonnaya, leaned down and used his left hand — a la Wilt Chamberlain with a basketball — to palm the unattended football off the ground and into his grasp for a frantic sprint down the left sideline.
As the return yards began to pile up — 10, 20, 30 — he made a bit of a juke move on a suddenly frozen Cleveland tackler and then set his sights on the end zone.
“It was pretty exhilarating; I started to feel a little bit like Emmanuel Sanders … except he would have scored,” the laughing Allen said in reference to the Steelers’ wide receiver. “I started to get a little tired, but I still thought I’d make the end zone. Then I saw the running back (Ogbonnaya) behind me and it was like ‘Oooh Noooo!’ ”
Ogbonnaya lunged forward and tripped Allen up at the 4. The 49-yard return set up another Pittsburgh score — Ben Roethlisberger’s short TD toss to Sanders — in what would be a demoralizing day for the Browns and their fans, most of whom had left the cold, wind-swept stadium midway through the fourth quarter.
The loss flattened the now 4-7 Browns’ thoughts of possibly becoming playoff contenders in the mediocrity-filled AFC.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, won its third straight game and the fifth of its last seven. This all comes after an 0-4 start on the season.
So what has changed?
For one thing, Allen has returned to the team.
His past three seasons — after beginning his career in Tampa Bay — Allen had mostly been used in a back-up role with the Steelers. He was also a special teams force and then last season he did fill in when Troy Polamalu was sidelined part of the season with injury.
In the offseason, Allen left for Dallas and a chance to be a bona fide starter.
He started the season opener for the Cowboys and had an interception, but rookie J.J. Wilcox took his starting job after the second game and then after the fifth game, the Cowboys cut him.
“Through all that I never doubted my ability or that there would be another opportunity out there,” Allen said. “Just because one team says no doesn’t mean another door won’t open.”
Two days after Dallas dumped him, he was resigned by the Steelers.
“I’ve known Will Allen his entire adult life,” said Steelers head Mike Tomlin. “I was the secondary coach in Tampa in ’04 when he was drafted and I know what he’s about. He’s a quality guy who only makes your team better.”
His first games back with Pittsburgh this year, Allen played mostly on special teams. Then safety Shamarko Thomas suffered an ankle injury in the first quarter against Buffalo. Allen ended up playing 32 snaps in the Steelers’ victory.
Against Detroit a week ago, he played 70 snaps and had one of the best games of his career. It compared to the 2005 outing with Tampa when he intercepted Green Bay’s Brett Favre twice in the fourth quarter.
With the Lions, he forced a Reggie Bush fumble in the first half that led to a Steelers’ field goal. Late in the game, he intercepted Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford and that led to Pittsburgh’s final touchdown in the 37-27 victory.
The Steelers defense accounted for four Browns turnovers Sunday, three fumbles and an interception of Brandon Weeden — who took over for Campbell, who suffered a head injury and left the game after on that sack and Allen run back — that Gay returned 21 yards for a score.
The Pittsburgh defense is starting to look like its old problematic self and Allen is not surprised.
“Look, our team started off 0-4 and I was in Dallas and got cut,” Allen said. “It’s adversity. That’s life. That’s football. But it’s always what you do with it after that.
“For our entire secondary, we just looked in the mirror and decided to take on a whole level of humility about our work. We were going to be accountable. We’re slowly bringing everything together. We’ve still got a long way to go, but we’re on a roll and I think we’re hitting our stride at the right time.”
Allen said he couldn’t be happier.
“I love it here. I love my teammates and playing in Pittsburgh. This is where I’m supposed to be.”
Like Roethlisberger, Allen said he also likes returning to Ohio to play the Browns.
Roethlisberger — the Findlay product who starred for the Miami RedHawks and then was snubbed in the 2004 draft by Cleveland — is now 16-1 against the Browns. In that same time, Cleveland has gone through 17 starting quarterbacks and it still doesn’t have one to properly lead the team.
Allen laughed: “I think I’m 4-1 against them. (Ben and I) we both wear this on our sleeves. We’re both Ohio guys and want to come back and make our fans proud.”
He also stays activate in the Dayton area with his Will Allen Foundation.
He has an after-school program he implemented in Huber Heights just like the ones he has in Pittsburgh and in Tampa. And around Christmas he said he’s having a “holiday give-away” in the Dayton area.
“I think we’re going to a local Walmart and pay off some families’ Christmases for them,” he said.
“I’ve got a lot to be thankful for this year and you want to do for others, too. You don’t forget where you came from.”