Secret Superstars 2014: Steelers
With Dick LeBeau one of the league’s elder statesmen the Steelers have one of the league’s more unique defensive environments. Nothing they do on that side of the ball is revolutionary or inimitable – at least not today – but it is an unusual defense on the whole and asks things of defenders that most defenses do not.
Consequently the Steelers have a bit of a history in allowing players to walk in free agency to more lucrative offers only to see them struggle outside of the Steelers system, occasionally leading to bringing them back to the warm embrace of the LeBeau system. One player who fits that description is cornerback William Gay.
A fifth-round pick in the 2007 NFL Draft out of Louisville, William Gay was from the first class that would see their entire NFL careers graded by PFF. His rookie season was almost like a redshirt year as the Steelers still had Deshea Townsend starting alongside Ike Taylor with 2005 second-round pick Bryant McFadden the nickel corner in subsets.
From 2008 onwards though the Steelers secondary was in transition. Deshea Townsend was clearly a declining force, so the team tried to give McFadden the chance to earn the starting job and Gay an opportunity to earn snaps in sub packages. McFadden played well in ’08 but then parlayed that form into a contract offer from the Arizona Cardinals in the offseason, leaving town and opening up the starting spot opposite Taylor. William Gay stepped into that void in 2009 but struggled as an every-down starter, earning a -9.4 grade in coverage and failing to intercept a single pass all year.
McFadden struggled enough away from Pittsburgh in the desert that he was traded back to the team as a makeweight for a fifth-round pick during the 2010 draft, but walked back into the starting lineup as Gay was relegated back to sub-package duty. Over the next two seasons Gay’s performance wasn’t spectacular, but it was enough to earn him a free agent offer from Arizona, and he followed the precedent set by McFadden, enduring a year he would rather forget in the desert. He started in Arizona but was dramatically outperformed by nickel corner Greg Toler and was cut loose by the team after just one season, signing back with the Steelers to replicate McFadden’s complete circle.
During his year away Keenan Lewis had stepped into the starting role in Pittsburgh and played very well, earning himself a healthy contract in New Orleans and becoming the first Steelers corner in a while to enjoy as much if not more success elsewhere. His departure meant the Steelers were still in the same situation they were back when Deshea Townsend began to fade – in need of a starting corner opposite Ike Taylor – and Gay was thrust back into the starting lineup. This time things would be different than they were in 2009.
This past season Gay was the Steelers’ highest graded corner, earning a +11.1 mark overall and grading well in all areas we chart. His coverage grade wasn’t stellar despite some impressive numbers, because he struggled a little to find the ball on the outside, notching just one interception all year and batting down five more passes. That interception was just the sixth of his career, a low figure for a player with as many snaps in coverage as he has over his career.
That explains only why his grade wasn’t even higher, because in terms of stopping his man catching the ball – a corner’s primary job after all – he was far more impressive. He allowed only 493 yards in coverage all season, less than half of the 1,043 Ike Taylor surrendered on similar snaps. While Taylor was beaten for 14.7 yards per completion Gay allowed just 9.5 and despite the lone interception, targeting him yielded a passer rating of just 72.9 all season compared with 110.6 for Taylor and 88.1 for Cortez Allen.
Not Just a One Trick Pony
His coverage represented a high-water mark during his career in 2013 but it was a more complete performance than just coverage. Only Captain Munnerlyn notched more defensive stops (tackles constituting an offensive failure) and only Tracy Porter recorded a run stop at a better rate. Too many corners in the league aren’t too interested in the run game, but a certain special breed see it as an opportunity to make more plays. Those are the corners I enjoy watching the most and Gay most certainly falls into that second category.
Take a look at this play against the Bengals in Week 2. The run is coming to his side and he suddenly finds man-mountain right tackle Andre Smith coming at him. Gay manages to duck around the attempted block by Smith, maintain the edge and then go low on the running back making a tackle for loss on the play. This is a play plenty of corners don’t even attempt to make once they see the blocker coming at them, electing instead for a Deion Sanders-style ‘business decision’ and just weakly taking the sideline, waiting for somebody else to make the play.
It has been a long and winding road for William Gay since entering the league, and PFF has charted it all along the way. 2013 marked the best performance of his career and he answered the call when the team was still in need of a starting corner. Pittsburgh didn’t select a corner until the fifth-round of the 2014 NFL draft, and so our Secret Superstar will get the 2014 season to see if he can repeat his fine play. William Gay is your Pittsburgh Steelers Secret Superstar for 2013.
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