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Starkey: Big day for Gay, Steelers 'D'

| Sunday, Nov. 21, 2010

The fear is palpable, the paranoia plain to see. Steelers fans are so afraid of another late-season meltdown that they have begun to hear things.

Some are convinced that coach Mike Tomlin, after the embarrassing loss to New England, actually said, "We will unleash hell here in November."

Others believe that nickel back William Gay, not kicker Jeff Reed, should have been fired Tuesday.

Those people are delusional. Gay is coming off a horrible game but is having an adequate season. How easily folks forget the big plays he made against Tampa Bay and Baltimore. Not that his performance Sunday was acceptable. A repeat, or even some early struggles today, would give the coaches reason to turn to Keenan Lewis.

But that's not the way I see this day unfolding. I expect Gay and the Steelers' defense to respond in redemptive fashion against the Oakland Raiders. Injuries or not, there is simply too much talent, too much experience and too much pride to let the season slip away on account of shoddy defense.

I'd be way more worried about an offense that has yet to carry the team for a significant stretch and will face a destructive Raiders front today.

Ideally, the Steelers will defend tailback Darren McFadden as strongly as secondary coach Ray Horton defended Gay on Friday, when I presented the news that talk-show lines were lighting up like pinball machines in criticism of the fourth-year cornerback.

Has Gay's play slipped?

"Absolutely not," Horton said. "Up until the last game, he's been fine."

Horton was quick to admit that New England "took us to the woodshed," but he also pointed out the obvious: Tom Brady is pretty good. Horton called him "the best quarterback in the NFL, hands down." Go back and watch the first touchdown pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski. As Horton put it, "perfect coverage, perfect throw, perfect catch."

"They get paid, too, is one of our mantras here," Horton said, speaking of opposing offenses. "They're going to make plays."

Be sure of this: When Horton hears a boo, he doesn't appreciate it. He is willing to accept legitimate criticism but adamantly rejects the notion that Steelers corners give too much cushion and thus surrender too many easy passes.

That is a popular fan complaint.

"Good," Horton said. "If they want to come down and coach, let them. What we're trying to do is win games. It's the fans' right to have interpretations. They pay our bills. I understand that. I don't know how to explain it other than, statistically, we've been the top defense the last seven years. Year-in, year-out, we've been a two-three-four-five defense."

This year, after a great start, the Steelers have slipped to ninth in yards allowed per game, though they are fifth in the most important stat: points allowed.

Still, something is amiss. When the unit is at its stifling best, opposing passer ratings often read like grade-point averages. Not so in the past six games, as evidenced by the ratings of Joe Flacco (82.7), Colt McCoy (80.5), Chad Henne (94.3), Brees (101.0), Carson Palmer (88.7) and Brady (117.4).

Gay rates his recent play as "fair." He senses the criticism and accepts that his position is highly scrutinized.

"If you're not strong for this game," he said, "you don't need to be in it." In another corner of the locker room, veteran linebacker James Farrior said mental errors were keeping the Steelers from being the team they think they are.

Which is what?

"A top-quality team," Farrior said. "I think we're a great defense when we're doing our job and everybody's playing the position they're supposed to be playing — and I think we have an opportunity we don't want to miss with this season."

There is no dominant team in the NFL, that's for sure. Anyone who reaches the playoffs could wind up throwing a parade. Call me delusional, but I still include the Steelers in that group, and I think you'll see why today.

At least on defense.

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