Defensive back Gay's versatility pays off for Steelers
William Gay is quietly becoming the Steelers' new Deshea Townsend.
Gay, who started 14 games at left cornerback last season, is now the team's nickel back. He's also the second-team right cornerback and has been working out at safety during training camp, along with continuing to perform on special teams.
Replaced at left corner by Bryant McFadden, Gay is smartly expanding his horizons and figuring out new ways to get on the field.
"You always want to be prepared for anything," said Gay, who played in every game in his first three seasons. "You can't sit back and say I'm on the second team or I'm not in a starting role. (In) this league, you're one injury away from being at a different position."
Gay is taking over the role held by Townsend, who played 12 seasons with the Steelers.
Townsend, recently signed by the Indianapolis Colts, lost his starting job at left cornerback to McFadden in 2008. For the better part of the past two seasons, Townsend played nickel back and safety.
"When Deshea did it, they kind of liked putting me behind him," Gay said.
When McFadden suffered an arm injury in the sixth game of the 2008 season, Gay replaced him. McFadden reclaimed the starting job late that season, which culminated in a Super Bowl XLIII victory. When McFadden signed with Arizona, Gay became the starter in 2009. McFadden replaced Gay as the starter this spring after being acquired in a draft-day trade.
In his role as nickel back, Gay has to read his keys like a safety and be able to play close to the line of scrimmage and tackle, while also falling back to cover receivers. He plays when there are three wide receivers on the field.
In the AFC North, the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens have talented receiving corps. The Bengals boast a three-receiver lineup featuring Terrell Owens, Chad Ochocinco and Antonio Bryant, who all have been No. 1 receivers in the NFL. Gay will be expected to cover the slot, or third, receiver.
"I knew the nickel since I first got here," said Gay, who played nickel back to open the 2008 season. "The league's evolving where you've got three top receivers that can be on the field at the same time. You're going to need your starting corners and you're going to also need a nickel that can stop those receivers."
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said the Steelers feature an extra defensive back 60 percent of the time.
"In our scheme of things, we want people to embrace their role. I would hope that Will would know he's going to virtually get the same amount of snaps he's always got," LeBeau said Wednesday. "I've been particularly pleased with the way he's come to training camp in peak condition. He's making plays. Will is playing good football."
If Gay can provide a strong presence at nickel back, it will give the Steelers depth at a position that lacks quality around the league.
Wide receiver Hines Ward said the Steelers attempt to create mismatches against defenses featuring three cornerbacks because it's difficult for most teams to adequately cover three receivers.
"A lot of corners can't play nickel. It's a total different ballgame inside," Ward said. "Nowadays, teams run three wides so you really have to have three legitimate cornerbacks on your team and a lot of teams don't have that."
Gay believes that starting at cornerback last season will ease his transition to playing nickel back.
"Playing 14-16 games, you know every situation an offense can throw at you," Gay said. "My mentality is to be a starter in the NFL. That never changed since I got here (in 2007). I prepare like a starter every day whether the role is nickel or safety or starting corner."