LATROBE, Pa. -- In less than a year, Ike Taylor went from being a Super Bowl star who signed a $22 million contract extension to being on the end of the Pittsburgh Steelers' bench, a cast-off figure in a forgettable season.
With a new coach in charge, Taylor is starting again at cornerback -- and, in his mind, is back where he belongs.
And those problems in coverage and confidence that led the Steelers to sit him down for five of their final six games last season, mere weeks after giving him a big raise in salary? Taylor suggests they weren't as big as they were made out to be, and he wonders if he was unfairly singled out for blame during the Steelers' failed season.
"I didn't drop off in nothing," he said Wednesday. "Not in my confidence at all. It happens like that. Any cornerback can go from the top to the bottom, it happens. The wide receivers get paid to catch the ball, too. That can happen to anybody."
Taylor was the Steelers' most reliable cornerback when they won the Super Bowl during the 2005 season, the defensive back assigned to cover the Chad Johnsons and Marvin Harrisons. Taylor rarely gave up a big play or a big game, and he had key interceptions in both the AFC championship game in Denver and in the Super Bowl, when he picked off Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's pass at the 5-yard line and the Steelers leading by four points in the fourth quarter.
That level of play convinced the Steelers they possessed the so-called shutdown cornerback that's considered a necessity for a championship-caliber team and, the opening week of last season, they signed him to a contract extension that could be worth as much as $22.5 million.
But, for some reason, Taylor wasn't the player in 2006 that he was in 2005, though he denies the contract talks created any distraction. As the Steelers started the season by losing six of their first eight games, he was repeatedly picked upon by opposing quarterbacks.
The worst game of his career came Nov. 5 in Pittsburgh, an AFC championship game rematch won by Denver 31-20 on the Steelers' home field as Jake Plummer threw for 227 yards and three touchdowns. Broncos receiver Javon Walker caught two touchdown passes of 10 yards each on fade patterns and had downfield catches of 38 and 61 yards, all of them with Taylor in coverage.
A week later, New Orleans rookie Marques Colston made 10 catches against Pittsburgh, again with Taylor mostly in coverage.
Taylor insists Walker's big game didn't shake his confidence, but he was benched shortly after that, even as the Steelers closed the season by winning six of their final eight. Still, Taylor suggests his play last season was better than it was perceived by the coaching staff and the media.
"Hey, that was out of my control last year," he said. "Last year was last year, it's over with. If you really watch football, you understand the game. At the same time, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, that comes with the territory."
Taylor didn't expand on how he felt he was unfairly blamed last season, but it appears that the coaching change from Bill Cowher to Mike Tomlin may have benefited him more than any other returning Steelers player. Tomlin appeared to give Taylor a mental lift when he told him that what happened last season wouldn't factor into any of his personnel decisions.
"He's a class act, he's a great guy," Taylor said. "I love coach Tomlin. He's a good guy. (Last winter) he told me some things he wanted done from me, and there were some things I asked him that I could work on, and I took it from there."
Taylor also likes that Tomlin, the former defensive backs coach at Tampa Bay, takes on a hands-on approach with the cornerbacks and safeties.
"He'll let us know what's up. He'll give you a few tips and tendencies," Taylor said. "He's got his eye on you. I know he's got a lot of guys he's got to watch, but he'll come over and give you some tips. He understands how the game is played. He understands what the cornerbacks and safeties, just the whole football team in general, goes through. That's great to have."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press
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