Starting left cornerback Ike Taylor opened 2007 with five solo tackles, one interception, one sack, one quarterback hurry and one pass defensed in the Steelers' 34-7 win against the Cleveland Browns.
It was a distinct step up from last season, when Taylor, one of the stars in Super Bowl XL, was not on the field with the first-team defense for five games. Instead, he unexpectedly became the NFL's highest-paid nickel and dime defensive back 11 games into his second season as a full-time starter.
Taylor's absence didn't go unnoticed by his teammates.
In a strong display of support for the former fourth-round draft pick, some of Taylor's defensive cohorts took their grievance to team leaders such as former captain Joey Porter and current captain James Farrior.
They requested an audience with coach Bill Cowher, wanting to know why Taylor wasn't in the starting lineup.
"We felt like it was a situation where you've got other guys out there not doing so good and you keep them in the game. So it sort of makes you look like a hypocrite," said Farrior, an 11-year veteran who led the Steelers with 154 tackles in 2006. "(Cowher) had his reasons for what he was doing, but we were all behind Ike and we supported him the whole way through."
That support resulted from the respect the defensive players have for Taylor.
"We looked at it as if the coach was just putting the blame on Ike over seeing what was really going on on our side (defense)," safety Tyrone Carter said. "Guys just started talking about it, and then the leaders on the team said we're going to talk to the coach."
Some of those team leaders -- including Farrior and Porter, now with the Miami Dolphins -- arranged a meeting with Cowher.
"You don't mess with a corner's psyche, but Ike had a strong mind," Porter told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "We talked about it, but those type of decisions are made by the head man. You can't go against the head man's judgment. That was something no player had control of. Since we didn't have control of it, it wasn't nothing to break the locker room over."
Said Farrior: "It wasn't that big, but it was a little sense of concern about how (Cowher) was running the show. We just wanted to get it all out in the open."
Cowher, now an NFL analyst with CBS, declined comment through a spokesperson.
Former Steelers defensive backs coach Darren Perry, who departed after last season, said Cowher maintained an open-door policy with his players.
"I was not aware of the players going to Bill on Ike's behalf, but it doesn't surprise me. Every one of those guys supported and believed in each other," said Perry, now a defensive backs coach with the Oakland Raiders. "As stern as Bill was, Bill would listen. He respected the players that much. Some coaches, I don't think the guys in New England would have done that with Bill Belichick."
The Steelers, who finished a disappointing 8-8, were 3-2 in the games that Taylor didn't start at left cornerback. He didn't return to the left side until the season finale against Cincinnati.
When Mike Tomlin replaced Cowher as head coach in January, one of his first tasks was restoring Taylor's confidence. Tomlin specializes in coaching defense, particularly secondary play.
Asked why he has gone out of his way to tout Taylor as the Steelers' top cornerback, Tomlin replied, "Because I looked at what Ike is capable of. He's a very talented guy. He has all the physical skills to be great. The more I get to know him, I know that he has a willingness to be great."
Steelers chairman Dan Rooney has noticed a change in Taylor's performance.
"Ike is very sensitive. I think that when he did experience some difficulties it affected him," Rooney said. "Coach Tomlin's been the guy that's really done it. He's built his confidence back up."
Taylor, 27, said the 35-year-old Tomlin has given him a greater understanding of how to be a successful NFL cornerback.
"When I was young, old people told me that God has always shown me favor," said Taylor, the Steelers' highest-paid cornerback, who signed a $23.75 million contract extension last September. "But with this new coaching change, I feel like that's a favor from God."
Taylor enjoyed a charmed season in 2005 when he replaced veteran Chad Scott and became a first-time starter. He had 96 tackles, led the NFL with 25 passes defensed and had an interception in the Super Bowl.
Prior to the 2006 season, Taylor signed a four-year extension that provided him with lifetime security. The deal featured $6.4 million in guaranteed money.
Life -- and football -- were almost too good to be true for the 6-1, 191-pound Taylor.
As the season unfolded, he held his own against Cincinnati's Chad Johnson and Oakland's Randy Moss, limiting the pair to three catches for 31 yards.
A week after Taylor shut down Moss, Denver's Javon Walker had six catches for 134 yards in a 31-20 Steelers' loss. Walker made a pair of short touchdown catches on fade routes against Taylor that prompted Cowher to single out those plays in the post-game press conference.
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said Taylor's 2005 performance raised expectations for 2006 despite his relative inexperience at left cornerback. Taylor played football at Louisiana-Lafayette for two seasons, and he played cornerback only in his senior season. Last year was his third as a starting cornerback in organized football.
LeBeau said Taylor still needs to familiarize himself with the Steelers' complicated defensive system that takes some players years to absorb.
"People forget that he's still a very young corner and doesn't have a tremendous amount of experience," LeBeau said. "A corner's going to have some ups and downs. The year before, we matched him against the opponents' best receiver an awful lot, so you know that teams are going to go after him. He was on their best receiver and we ended up winning the world championship, so obviously he did his job very well. They caught a few more balls on Ike last year than he wanted them to catch."
Two weeks after the Denver game, Taylor participated in only 27 plays in a 27-0 loss to Baltimore. Bryant McFadden opened at right cornerback and Deshea Townsend slid over to the left side.
Taylor played in nickel and dime packages the next four weeks.
"Coming off the Super Bowl season, you've got to want it even more," said Taylor, who had 74 tackles and still led the team with 18 passes defensed. "Not saying I didn't want it more, but you've got to be hungry. It's hard to stay at the top."
Despite what happened last season, Tomlin said he values Taylor's importance at left cornerback. Tomlin actually rates left cornerback on a level with left offensive tackle -- the protector of the quarterback's blind side.
Just as left tackles are the highest-paid offensive linemen, left cornerbacks are typically the highest-paid cornerbacks. Nine of the 15 highest-paid cornerbacks are left cornerbacks, including a top three consisting of San Francisco's Nate Clements ($10 million per season), Denver's Champ Bailey ($9.37 million) and Baltimore's Chris McAlister ($7.97 million). Of the 64 starting cornerbacks, Taylor ranks No. 15 in salary at $5.23 million per season.
"I think a lot of times people underestimate the differences in those positions," Tomlin said. "It's well-documented, and it's very understandable when you talk about offensive linemen, but it is also very different from a cornerback standpoint."
In Sunday's game against Cleveland, Taylor followed up an impressive preseason with an interception of a long pass intended for Braylon Edwards. He also was strong against the run and led Steelers defensive backs in tackles.
Tomlin said Taylor's best football is ahead of him.
"Potential is a dangerous word. I don't like to live in that world," Tomlin said. "We are what we put on tape. We're in a feel-good stage right now. He's doing some great things. He's got to put it on tape, and I know he's looking forward to doing that."