Even though the Pittsburgh Steelers announced William Gay’s name with the starting defense, considering how frequently the defense has come to rely on him in the nickel, the veteran cornerback only played a comparative handful of snaps.
The Steelers largely stayed in their base defense with the Cleveland Browns finding success on the ground despite which defensive line personnel was on the field. Taking off a lineman would only have exacerbated the problems.
Yet despite logging only 16 snaps, it’s probably fair to say that “Big Play” Willie Gay lived up to that name, registering three pass defenses and a tackle for loss on a wide receiver screen, and those plays happened at key junctures.
With the Browns facing second and long late in the third quarter, Gay was lined up in the slot on wide receiver Andrew Hawkins. When Hawkins ran past on a deep curl toward the sideline, Gay released him and caught a piece of a pass intended for rookie receiver Taylor Gabriel for his first of three pass deflections.
On the following play, however, he was back on Hawkins in the slot, this time in man coverage. About 10 yards down the field, Hawkins pulled a double move, bluffing a curl to the left before peeling off to the right, which gave Brian Hoyer the window he needed to make the throw. Gay allowed the first down on this third and 12 play for one of his few blemishes of the night, a play after breaking up a pass.
Late in the fourth quarter, the Browns just narrowly escaped a turnover on second down, giving them a third and seven from the Steelers’ 36-yard line. Gay lined up close to the line across from the receiver, but he stayed underneath when the receiver released deep. As a result, he was able to get in front of a pass intended for tight end Gary Barnidge to force the Browns to punt, rather than try for a go-ahead field goal.
After the Steelers failed to score on their ensuing possession, a touchback gave the Browns a chance for a game-winning drive from the 20-yard line with just under two minutes to play. After a sack on first down, Gay dropped back with Gabriel before reading Hoyer to break on a pass underneath to Hawkins. He was able to get to the ball in time to knock it away.
On the very next play, Gay lined up at the line across from Hawkins, sensing a screen pass based on what he saw earlier in the game. His instincts were dead on, as the ball went to Hawkins, and he went to the ball, beating Barnidge to drop the receiver for a five-yard loss.