And suddenly, William Gay is the veteran of the secondary, having just hit the wrong side of 30 with the turn of the new year. With the recent retirements of Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor, Gay is not only the oldest member of the secondary, he also has by far the most experience playing in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ scheme.
Having spent seven of his eight seasons with the Steelers since being selected in the fifth round of the 2007 NFL Draft, this will be, in fact, only the second season in which Gay is projected to be a starting cornerback, in spite of the fact that he has had ample starting experience.
In 2008, Gay cracked the starting lineup thanks to an arm injury suffered by Bryant McFadden. With McFadden hitting free agency, it was time for Gay to step up in 2009, but he faltered. The Steelers brought McFadden back in 2010. But after suffering an injury on opening day in 2011, McFadden was replaced once again by Gay in the starting lineup the following year.
After returning in 2013, the veteran slot receiver ended up starting 11 games due to Cortez Allen’s struggles. Last year, Taylor’s injury in the third game of the season saw Gay finish up the year in the starting lineup once again.
Having started 61 games for Pittsburgh, and 76 overall over his eight-year career, Gay is facing the unusual proposition of being asked to be the Steelers’ top cornerback, although that is essentially the role that he played last year, when he posted a career-high three interceptions, all of which he returned for touchdowns.
Behind him is a group that lacks any type of meaningful starting pedigree, led by Allen, who has been demoted from the starting lineup the past two seasons, and ultimately benched last year. He also started at the end of the 2012 season in place of the injured Taylor, and played some of his best ball, which is what got him in the starting lineup in the first place.
Antwon Blake, entering his fourth year and third season with the Steelers, has not started a game in which the team opened in their base package, although perhaps he may battle Allen for the second starting cornerback spot this summer.
B.W. Webb aside for the moment, the cornerback group is rounded out by two rookies, Senquez Golson and Doran Grant, the latter of which bears some similarities to Gay, but is somewhat heavier and comes into the league with a solid tackling reputation.
When the Steelers take the field on opening day, Gay figures to be the oldest player on defense, if we assume that James Harrison does not start, which has been the suggestion based on public comments from the coaching staff.
For the first time in his career, perhaps, we see ability and opportunity collide. He wasn’t quite ready when he was thrust into the starting lineup in his third season, but he has been since, and has proven it. Now he has his starting spot, seemingly, but it will be up to him to help guide the rest of the relatively inexperienced secondary behind him.