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Gay returns to Steelers; Franchise tag unused

| Monday, March 4, 2013, 12:09 p.m.
The Steelers' William Gay pulls in a pass from Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton for a fourth-quarter interception Nov. 13, 2011, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)

The Steelers quickly cured William Gay's homesickness.

Gay, who missed the Steelers so much last season that he frequently sought out their games to watch after joining the Cardinals, returned to Pittsburgh by signing a three-year contract Monday.

Gay, who started 35 games from 2007-11, is following cornerback Bryant McFadden's path in 2010 by returning to the Steelers after playing one season in Arizona.

“You definitely miss it. It's like going away from your family when you go to college,” Gay said of playing for the Steelers. “You get a little homesick. I caught myself looking at some of their games during the season. ... You see the guys that you played with, like my big brother, Ike Taylor.”

As soon as the Cardinals released Gay one year into his two-year contract, Taylor began lobbying GM Kevin Colbert to bring Gay back.

“He was like, ‘Hey, man, y'all need to get Will Gay back,' ” Gay said. “Kevin looked at him like, ‘Are you his agent, or what?' ”

The Cardinals cut Gay rather than pay him the $3.225 million he was owed for 2013.

“Soon as it hit the wire that I was released, I got a call from the black and gold and that put a smile on my face — my home team, the team that drafted me, wanted me back,” Gay said.

Gay provides the Steelers some protection in case starting cornerback Keenan Lewis — who replaced Gay as a starter — leaves via free agency. If Lewis signs elsewhere, Cortez Allen likely would become a starter and Gay could slide into the nickel back role Allen played last season.

Asked if the Steelers defined his role for him, Gay said, “They just said, ‘Come back and let's go. Let's compete and win some games.' That's what I want to do.”

If Lewis doesn't sign with another team and returns to Pittsburgh, the Steelers still need cornerback depth. The 5-foot-10, 183-pound Gay started 15 games for Arizona last season and 15 in his final Steelers season in 2011, making two interceptions each season.

Gay, a fifth-round pick in 2007, was let go after former Steelers defensive backs coach Ray Horton left the Cardinals to become the Browns' defensive coordinator.

Gay never considered following Horton to Cleveland.

“And play against Pittsburgh for two games?” Gay said. “It's Cleveland. I don't know if I could deal with that.”

Also Monday, the Steelers declined to place the franchise tag on a player for the third year in a row.

They could have retained wide receiver Mike Wallace ($10.537 million tag) or Lewis ($10.854 million) by doing so, but chose against it.

As unrestricted free agents, Wallace and Lewis can sign with another team next week without the Steelers receiving compensation.

The Steelers last used the franchise tag on kicker Jeff Reed in 2010.

According to NFL.com rankings, Wallace is the best player available on the free-agent market.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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