Secret Superstars 2014: Steelers

Sam Monson takes a look at a player who came back to Pittsburgh and played as a Secret Superstar on the Steelers defense.

| 3 years ago

Secret Superstars 2014: Steelers

2014-SS-gayWith 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.

Early Struggles

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.

Happy Homecoming

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.

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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.


Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam 

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN and NBCSports.

  • gth

    Are you kidding me? Gay a superstar? . Decent nickel, decent tackler and good at blitzes. Terrible coverage skills and his “best” year is padded because Ike stunk and was targeted more.

    • Madi

      Yes, I suppose I need to go back and read their definition of Secret Superstar.

      Gay has played fine his whole career, when under-the-radar and on the easy assignments. His career has had so many dips, I hesitate to label him anything above a good #4 and an okay #3. If he can continue to play as well as he did last year, you could call him a good #3. He can do special teams. He can do run support. He can blitz, but I’ve always thought his blitzing ability was overrated – the amount of time he spends in the backfield says more about his coverage ability, if you ask me. You hope he never sees the field as the starter, but he’s even been doing better at that since working under Carnell Lake.

      The thing that makes him such a weird choice to me is that:

      a) Going into his 8th year, there’s nothing Secret about him.

      b) His abilities are established. He has reached his ceiling, and it’s nowhere near the word “Star.” Or “Super.”

      c) There are plenty of other good choices available on the Steelers, even right there in the secondary.

      Cortez Allen has had ups and downs, but finished strong last year and has WAY more potential than Gay ever did. The only thing Shamarko Thomas needs is playing time. Might be a couple years, but he could be a Superstar himself.

  • Jay

    I’ll just leave this here.

    • Josh Knepshield

      2009 dude. Read, and it will tell you he has improved tremendously

  • Josh Knepshield

    Haters can hate on this choice all they want, but at the end of the day, he was the Steelers best CB in 2013.

    • Madi

      Depends which “day” you’re talking about. Gay was the Steelers’ most consistent CB over the course of the year. But if “at the end of the day” you mean the end of the season, then the best CB was Cortez Allen, who had a slow start to the season, but finished strong and took over responsibility of covering opponents’ #1 receivers (from Ike Taylor). He was the best at the end of 2013 and he’ll be the best at the beginning of 2014. And on top of that he’s got more athleticism, size, ball skills, and youth than William Gay.
      That’s what makes it a weird choice for me. Gay’s not even the Secret Superstar of his own position, let alone the whole team.

      • Josh Knepshield

        PFF looks at the ENTIRE season, not just the final 4 games or so. Gay was solid, if not good, all season long. That is why he is PFF’s Secret Superstar for the Steelers.

        • Madi

          Isn’t at least part of this this supposed to be some kind of projection of the future? Would they pick a player that’s not coming back to the Steelers this year?

          • Josh Knepshield

            William Gay is still on the roster. With the depth the Steelers do not have at CB, he will be back after this year. He is only 29, which is not young, but he’s not 35.