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Harris: Steelers must re-sign Ike Taylor

Six games into their season, the Steelers know what they must do.

They have to take care of cornerback Ike Taylor. They have to lock up Taylor for at least the next three years while he's in his prime.

The Steelers can't pay everyone, but they have to pay Taylor, who becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

Taylor is a young 30. He didn't take a beating in college, where he played running back for one season and moved to cornerback as a senior. He's probably the Steelers' best-conditioned athlete who trains year-round and works with speed and conditioning guru Tom Shaw in the offseason.

A team player, he hasn't complained about his contract status. He didn't criticize the front office the way linebacker LaMarr Woodley and kicker Jeff Reed did. Instead, he kept his thoughts private and is playing the best football of his career.

"I don't want to play anywhere else, just knowing what we could be. Pittsburgh feels like home," said Taylor, a fourth-round draft pick in 2003. "I'm playing for a Hall of Fame defensive coordinator (Dick LeBeau). I don't want to go anywhere else, but it's all on them."

Taylor's ability to play man-to-man on the right side, sometimes with little or no help, makes him almost indispensable. He's a leader in the locker room and a mentor to young cornerbacks such as William Gay and Keenan Lewis.

Taylor has his detractors. He doesn't intercept passes like Darrelle Revis of the New York Jets, but Revis hasn't won two Super Bowls, much less started in them. Taylor isn't flashy like Nnamdi Asomugha of the Oakland Raiders, but Asomugha doesn't force the run like Taylor does.

"The only thing I've been lacking is catching balls, as far as not having recognition," said Taylor, who has 10 career interceptions in eight seasons. "I feel like it's about that time. I've been making statements, but not what the people want to see and probably not what I want."

In Sunday's 23-22 win at Miami, Taylor followed star receiver Brandon Marshall out of the locker room, in the Dolphins' huddle and defended Marshall's routes like his shadow.

Marshall was targeted nine times and had five receptions for 57 yards. Taylor didn't cover Marshall on every play, just the most important ones.

On third down from the Steelers 4-yard-line in the second quarter, Taylor disrupted Marshall's timing just enough that quarterback Chad Henne's pass fell incomplete. Instead of Marshall scoring a touchdown in the red zone where he excels and giving Miami a 13-10 lead, the Dolphins settled for a field goal.

The Steelers have been a force throughout this decade. They played in two AFC Championship games before Taylor became a starter in 2005, but they didn't win a Super Bowl until he cracked the lineup.

Make no mistake, the Steelers are capable of winning without Taylor. They'll have no choice if they don't re-sign him. But can they win a Super Bowl without him• Hopefully, the Steelers won't have to find out.

What makes the Steelers special is the front office's ability to plan for the future. Director of football operations Kevin Colbert is excellent at targeting players who fit the system, and he's really, really good at locating players who can take over when the starters leave.

Except in this case, the Steelers don't have another corner on their roster who can follow the likes of Marshall from sideline-to-sideline. True, Taylor had help Sunday. But not every play.

Bryant McFadden isn't the answer if the Steelers don't bring back Taylor. Otherwise, McFadden would play press coverage on the left side the way Taylor does on the right side.

Lewis, a second-year corner, and rookie Crezdon Butler aren't answers, either. Lewis, of whom coach Mike Tomlin said was competing against McFadden in preseason, has dressed in only two of the first six games. Butler isn't close to being ready. Should the coaching staff expect Lewis or Butler to start in Taylor's place next season?

Gay has found a home at nickel back. He was out of his element last season as the starting left corner.

Of course, the ideal situation is to have two lockdown corners like Taylor. Still, one lockdown corner is better than none. If the Steelers let Taylor walk, they won't have any. The choice is theirs.

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