By Jeremy Hritz
Every NFL player has had a bad game. Some occur without any significant impact on the outcome, but if you are Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor in January’s Wild Card game against the Denver Broncos, your poor performance ultimately seals your team’s fate. There is no question that Taylor played one of the worst games of his career in Denver; however, he must show that his performance has not affected his mental game if the Steelers defense is going to play effectively against the pass in 2012.
The most recent Steelers season could not have ended any more devastatingly for Taylor as he made Tim Tebow and Demaryius Thomas look like All-Pros. On the final play of the game in overtime, Taylor played over top on Thomas in an inverted cover-2, yet the Broncos rookie broke inside to the middle of the field and torched Taylor for 80 yards and the game-winning touchdown. Aggravating the situation was Taylor’s attempt to tackle Thomas which was thwarted by a stiff arm. After the game, Taylor was dejected and refused to speak to the media, and soon after, Taylor issued an apology to Steelers fans on Twitter for his performance.
For the Steelers to be successful on defense, they will need Taylor to reassert himself as the consistent player that he has been throughout his career. For him to do this, he must demonstrate that his confidence has not been shaken by his overtime lapse.
If Taylor’s resume says anything, it is that he will rebound. In 2006, which was Taylor’s worst season, he was benched by then head coach Bill Cowher, after an abhorrent performance against who else, the Broncos. In that game, Javon Walker set the precedent for Thomas, as he abused Taylor for 134 yards, two touchdowns, and a 72 yard score on a reverse in which he missed the tackle (sound familiar?).
His response? It is well documented in the wins, two Super Bowl appearances and one victory, and top five rankings on defense, all of which would not have been possible without Taylor’s play.
Throughout his tenure with the Steelers, Taylor has been an above average player, but not an elite one. He has been criticized throughout his career for his lack of interceptions, something that he has made concerted efforts to improve. Yet despite only 13 career interceptions, his steady play has been close to Pro Bowl caliber, yet not close enough as he has never earned the honor in his nine-year career.
2012 will be an interesting year for Taylor for several reasons, the first being whether or not he will step up and assume a leadership role on the defense that lost James Farrior and Aaron Smith. With a wealth of experience, having been through the ups and downs of the game, Taylor is potentially a candidate to fill those vacancies. His guidance and insight will be crucial in developing youngsters Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown, and in facilitating the transition of Keenan Lewis to a starting role. Also worth paying close attention to is whether or not Taylor’s skills will begin to deteriorate at age 32. Hopefully, he can emulate Champ Bailey, who continues to play well with the Broncos at 34 years old.
But most interesting will be whether or not Taylor can rebound like he has in the past to move beyond his playoff meltdown. His comments this offseason about the play are revealing. In an interview with Albert Buford of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Taylor said “I remember it every day. People remember you for the things you do, and I don’t want to have that game be what people remember me for.” It sounds as if Taylor is determined to redress his play from the Wild Card game. If Taylor can use his nightmarish experience as a motivator to improve and can see the experience as part of process and not a damnation of his abilities, he will undoubtedly return to his consistent level of play with maybe even a greater hunger and focus.