Steelers cornerbacks Allen, Gay, Taylor have something to prove
There's a new safety playing behind them, a rookie linebacker and rookie defensive end playing in front of them.
Opposing offenses are operating at a Daytona 500-type pace, and more penalty flags are being tossed than ever — many because of them. Offensive play-callers are using analytical tools to create favorable matchups against them.
This isn't an easy time to be an NFL cornerback, especially a Steelers cornerback. Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen and William Gay have only one preseason game remaining — in which they'll likely play little, if it all — to get ready for a season that is expected to offer more offense than ever.
“It's an offensive league, and that's what they want,” safety Mike Mitchell said.
But what the Steelers don't want to see again is a performance like Thursday's in Philadelphia.
They seemed incapable of controlling an Eagles offense that rolled up and down Lincoln Financial Field creating waves of yardage, exposing flaws in Pittsburgh's secondary.
“That's the way the NFL is going. The offenses and the offensive gurus are trying to put out multiple receivers and still run the ball because they know you have to take a big guy (run defender) out to put in a (defensive back),” Gay said.
The Steelers attempted to get younger and faster along the defensive line and at linebacker and safety during the offseason, but the cornerback group mostly was left intact. Starting Sept. 7 against Cleveland, they'll find out if that was a fatal flaw.
“We want to be on the incline, and that's the direction we're headed to being as a veteran group,” Gay said.
But to date in the preseason, there appears to be reason for concern.
The defense is ranked second lowest in the league through three games, the pass coverage is sixth lowest and the run defense is fourth lowest, according to Pro Football Focus.
Allen grades out as the 191st worst among the league's top 192 cornerbacks. Gay is 132nd, and Taylor is 96th following a season in which he allowed more than 1,000 yards receiving.
There are other issues that could influence this group's play.
Allen is in a contract year and likely must re-sign by next week if he is to get a new deal from the Steelers. Taylor took a $4.25 million pay cut to stay with the team and is unsigned for 2015. And Gay, despite easily being the team's highest-graded cornerback last season, isn't officially classified as a starter.
“Either you get the job done, or you don't,” Taylor said. “And if you don't get the job done, you know the consequences.”
For the Steelers, that could mean a radically reshaped cornerbacks group in 2015.
Still, coach Mike Tomlin suggests many of the issues are just preseason concerns.
“I really think they've done a great job of embracing the challenge they're facing (regarding) the point of emphasis (defensive contact) and showing the ability to move forward after negative things happen, when flags are on the ground,” he said. “That's really a sign of maturity.”
For now, the cornerbacks will work on developing more continuity with new starting safety Mitchell, who replaces eight-year starter Ryan Clark.
“You've got to go through some growing pains,” Gay said. “But he fits our philosophy — great guy, great teammate. … He's willing to listen. We're willing to listen to him.”
Rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier sometimes found himself out of place in the Eagles game and needed to be corrected, but Gay said he's a fast learner, just like rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt.
“It's fun when you have a young guy like Ryan. … (He's saying) ‘I may not understand the philosophy of the NFL, but I'm going to do it at 100 mph,' ” Gay said.
Or what must seem like the speed of the game today to a Steelers cornerback.