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Starkey: Steelers' corners on the spot

| Thursday, May 20, 2010

Suggested reply, should someone ask how poor the Steelers' pass defense was last season: "Well, the head coach attempted on onside kick with 3:58 left in a game and his team AHEAD BY TWO POINTS."

Troy Polamalu's recurring absence was the biggest factor in the secondary's demise, but let's be honest: The cornerback play was brutal — and annoying. You got the feeling some of these guys actually thought they were good.

I remember thinking: Why is William Gay mocking Chad Ochocinco when Gay hasn't made a play all year• And why would Ike Taylor celebrate anything when the only ball he caught in the first 15 games was an onside kick against Green Bay?

Clearly, coach Mike Tomlin — who cut his teeth working with defensive backs — and secondary coach Ray Horton felt a dose of humility was in order. You knew as much if you heard Horton's recent assessment of Gay's 2009 performance, a performance that cost him a starting job and prompted the Steelers to bring back Bryant McFadden.

"I think if you talked to William," Horton said, "he would say he became a little too full of himself."

I talked to William on Tuesday and asked if he'd become a little too full of himself. Actually, I asked what he thought of Horton's comment. I liked his answer.

"You have to respect that," Gay said. "Coach Horton has been coaching a long time, and he also played in the league. You have to respect what he said. I truly do. We have to come back more focused, more humble."

Asked to grade his '09 performance, Gay said: "I didn't make any plays. I think I dropped like three or four interceptions. If I catch those, I probably would have graded out great, but I didn't. It was a bad season for me, personally. I have to make those plays."

Truthfully, it was more than just a handful of dropped picks that made it a miserable season for Gay, but he was mostly on the mark with his self-assessment.

Taylor, too, delivered a solid and humble self-critique. He agreed he was no better than average.

"I'd give myself about a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10," he said. "I know I can do a lot better. I want to be a '9' or '10.' I haven't had one of those seasons yet."

Gay and McFadden figure to compete for the job opposite Taylor, with youngsters Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett knocking on the door. Last year's group of corners miraculously failed to make an interception for 15 games, before veteran Deshea Townsend — who was not re-signed — broke the streak at Miami.

Dropped picks are one thing. Consistently getting beaten was the bigger issue, and the Steelers corners were roasted like red peppers by everyone from Aaron Rodgers to Bruce Gradkowski. That needs to change against a schedule sprinkled with dangerous passing attacks, starting with Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons.

The Steelers will see Drew Brees and Tom Brady. They will see new Baltimore receiving threat Anquan Boldin, and, in December, a New York Jets offense that could feature Santonio Holmes, assuming he hasn't been banned from the league by then (no truth to the rumor that the Jets were going to use the run-and-shoot offense this season but scrapped it for the wake-and-bake).

McFadden's return raised some questions, being that Arizona packaged him with a sixth-round pick and only got a fifth-round pick in return. Not exactly a king's ransom. He also had zero interceptions in 16 games last season.

McFadden told me Wednesday a big factor in the move was the Cardinals wanting to avoid his $5 million salary. The Cardinals also have a young player — Greg Toler — ready to step in.

The Steelers obviously believe McFadden can still be effective, that his talents are better suited to their system. We'll find out soon enough.

After the workout Tuesday, Tomlin met with his cornerbacks. The group stayed to work on their skills long after their teammates left for the locker room.

A good sign, even if the season is almost four months away.

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