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Harris: Life without Ike no fun for Steelers

| Monday, Dec. 10, 2012, 10:56 p.m.
The Steelers' doctor shows cornerback Ike Taylor his X-rays on the sideline during Sunday's game against the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)

Well, it finally happened.

The most scrutinized and criticized Steelers player this side of Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox saw his consecutive game streak end at 135 games.

San Diego 34, Steelers 24.

So this is what life is like without cornerback Ike Taylor.

Inexperienced Steelers corners getting snookered by double moves. Journeyman receivers running free in the secondary. San Diego and Baltimore combining for four touchdown passes in Taylor's absence after the Steelers had yielded four touchdown passes in their previous seven games with Taylor in the lineup.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin knew what was coming a week ago when he said in response to Taylor's injury: “We're in unique territory.”

All along, Steelers fans were led to believe the defense's success was contingent on safety Troy Polamalu. But the Steelers are ranked No. 1 in total and pass defense this season despite Polamalu's missing nine games because of injury.

How is that possible?

This year, safety Ryan Clark might be the most valuable member of the defense. Polamalu and Clark started against San Diego. The problem is they can't play cornerback and defend the other team's No. 1 receiver the way Taylor can.

Unfortunately, neither can corners Keenan Lewis, Curtis Brown, Cortez Allen and Josh Victorian.

“True No. 1 corners, guys who shadow the opposing team's top receiver every week and don't always need safety help, are rare and unspeakably valuable in the NFL. The Steelers have one in Ike Taylor,” said Andy Benoit, who writes for the New York Times and has regular access to Steelers game tape.

“Double moves are how teams like to test young corners,” Benoit said of a successful strategy utilized by San Diego and Baltimore against the Steelers. “All corners face this test; Ike has rare recovery ability against double moves.”

Full disclosure: I'm the host of “The Ike Taylor Show” on TribLive Radio, but this is a story that's been underplayed.

Since becoming a starter in 2005, Taylor has been matched 65 times against Pro Bowl receivers Andre Johnson, Randy Moss, Reggie Wayne, Larry Fitzgerald, Brandon Marshall, Vincent Jackson, Wes Welker, Steve Smith, Chad Johnson, A.J. Green, Steve Smith, DeSean Jackson, Terrell Owens, Marvin Harrison and Javon Walker. That includes a game last season in which Green caught a 36-yard touchdown pass on a play that didn't involve Taylor.

The totals: 146 receptions for 2,027 yards and 11 touchdowns, which averages out to 2.2 catches and 31.2 yards per game.

Meanwhile, San Diego's no-name trio of Danario Alexander, Michael Spurlock and Malcom Floyd combined for 17 receptions, 162 yards and three touchdowns against the Steelers.

“When you remove that sort of asset from the lineup, you don't only become less talented as a secondary, you potentially become less diverse and less complex,” said Benoit, who has appeared as a guest on Taylor's radio show. “Without Taylor, the Steelers are less inclined to dictate matchups and more inclined to simply react to what the offense is doing. That ultimately puts a greater strain on all 11 (defensive) players.”

The young cornerbacks could catch a break Sunday. Cowboys star receiver Dez Bryant sprained his finger in Sunday's win over the Bengals and could miss the rest of the season. Still, Miles Austin and the rest of the Cowboys' receivers must be salivating at the thought of facing a Taylor-less secondary.

“It's consistency when it comes to my position because you're out there on your own,” Taylor said. “It's going to be days like that. Your mentality's got to be strong. The more I tell them, they can hear it, and they can understand it. But they really ain't going to understand it until they go through it.

“It takes a while. It took me four or five years. It's understanding everybody and where you (need) to be.”

Understand this: The Steelers need Taylor back on the field.

John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at jharris@tribweb.com.

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