Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback William Gay was a fifth-round draft pick out of Louisville in the 2007 NFL Draft, a 5’10” grinder with decent measureables who projected in the professional realm as a slot corner. When he has been able to actually play in the slot, particularly over the past two seasons, he has been very good.
But lately, the Steelers have not had the luxury of allowing him to put him into situations that best accentuate his abilities. Things got so bad last season, in fact, that after just a few games he ended up being, essentially, their number one cornerback, primarily facing the opposing offense’s best wide receiver.
That is that the role to suit him, but we know that he managed to do the job well, with all things considered. He gave up a few touchdowns, but he also returned three interceptions for touchdowns of his own and, despite occasionally missing tackles due to his size, is a smart and willing run defender.
According to Football Outsiders, in fact, Gay was actually among the better number one cornerbacks in the league last season, although it is a concept that is far from simple to quantify, and even they admit that such statistics are just one part of the story.
But it’s interesting to see that he made the list at all, coming in at 10th among the top 10 number one cornerbacks in the league last season. In order to define a number one cornerback, the site considered the player on each team that most faces opposing targets against a number one receiver, along with target and start thresholds.
They also eliminated from their data plays that do not reflect on the cornerback, such as screen passes, tipped balls, and plays in which a hit influenced the quarterback’s pass. Part of the evaluation was measuring “success” rate, with a successful gained defined at 45 percent of the necessary yardage on first down, 60 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third down.
Based on this criteria, Gay finished 10th among the number one cornerbacks, posting a success rate of 56 percent. Darrelle Revis led the column with a success rate of 62 percent.
This is a worthy accomplishment when considering the fact that Gay was, by intention, a slot corner entering last season, and the fact that he proved sufficient as the team’s top cornerback is a testament to his versatility and tenacity.
It’s worth noting that other teams were certainly aware of this, which is why, even though he played less snaps than the majority of the cornerbacks listed ahead of him, he was targeted with greater frequency. FO estimates that he was targeted 26 percent of the time in coverage on 89 targets. Revis, for comparison, was targeted 17 percent of the time with 69 targets.
Gay never asked to be the top cornerback, or to be tasked with frequently covering the best wide receiver on the field, but he’s never complained and always given his best effort. It looks like he will be the top corner again this season, although early indications suggest that they may slide him into the slot in sub-packages.