By Jim Wexell
Posted May 20, 2010
Four cornerbacks are competing for one job this season with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and all four of those cornerbacks hope to bounce back from 2009 seasons that can be described anywhere within the range of Below Average to Disastrous. To wit:
* Bryant McFadden, currently the No. 1 LCB with the Steelers, was run out of Arizona after a disastrous performance in the NFL playoffs.
“Those two games didn’t indicate how I played through the course of the year,” said McFadden, who injured his sternum in the first playoff game and probably shouldn’t have played in the second.
“I was trying to be a competitor, but playing in that condition I was in wasn’t healthy at all, physically or mentally,” he said.
* William Gay, currently the No. 2 LCB, apparently lost his starting spot to McFadden after a below average 2009 in which DB coach Ray Horton said that Gay “became a little too full of himself … I’m sure he thought ‘I’m here. I’ve arrived.’”
Gay denies the charge, but admits he played poorly. “That’s why I’m going to come back this season and play even better,” he said. “I went through a lot of trials and tribulations and that always builds your character. You always can learn from your mistakes.”
* Third-round draft pick Keenan Lewis didn’t help much as he battled a back problem that was overlooked by fans and media who suspected the rookie didn’t understand the defense well enough to dress on game days.
“My back was a big problem,” Lewis said. “But it’s been getting better every day. I’ll be awesome this year.”
* Instead of turning to Lewis for help last year, the coaching staff turned to fifth-round pick Joe Burnett. But he’s remembered mainly for dropping an easy interception against Oakland that allowed the Raiders to continue their drive and score the game-winning touchdown.
“That was the turning point in my career,” said Burnett. “I know that can’t happen again. Dropping that ball will only make me better because I’ll work that much harder to get the next one.”
With four cornerbacks who have something to prove, the Steelers should be able to find at least one to ably man the open position opposite Ike Taylor. Shouldn’t they?
“Absolutely,” Burnett said. “It’s going to make all of us better, even Ike. That competition level ensures that you don’t take anything for granted. You’ve got to work.”
And that’s what this group’s been doing this spring. Behind the leadership of Taylor, the cornerbacks consistently stay late after practice. Taylor even serves as the stand-in quarterback when an arm’s needed.
“Just trying to help the guys out,” said Taylor, the eighth-year vet who turned 30 earlier this month.
Taylor doesn’t miss voluntary workouts, during which he’ll run a series of sprints while the second and third teams are on the field. After workouts, Taylor leads the group in their own drills. He shrugs off the extra work as merely “a routine down with Coach Shaw, so I brought that up here.”
Tom Shaw is the NFL speed guru with whom Taylor has worked the past few offseasons. Steelers officials, in fact, are raving about Taylor’s conditioning this offseason in particular.
“That’s just me being me,” Taylor said. “Working hard, that label’s been with me all my life.”
That might ease the fears of fans who worry about 30-year-old cornerbacks, but what about the other side? Taylor was asked about the left cornerback position.
“I don’t think Gay did that bad last year,” Taylor said. “He just had growing pains. That’s all it was. But his growing pains, everybody saw them. Everybody. You’ve got to be mentally strong enough and tell yourself, ‘Hey, I’ve got to bounce back from that.’ Once you can get over that hump, everything takes care of itself.”
What does Taylor want to see out of the cornerbacks, even the entire defense, this season?
“The same mentality that we had in ’05,” he said. “On defense I want to have that ’05 mentality where nobody could tell us nothing. That’s when you were playing Pittsburgh’s defense and you knew you were in for a dogfight.”
Was the 2005 edition better than the one in 2008?
“The stats weren’t,” Taylor said. “But the mentality? The aggressive mentality? Yeah, that was better then, and we need to get that mentality back.”