Earlier this offseason, there were a lot of questions raised about how the Pittsburgh Steelers would be able to replace the leadership that we saw walk out the door with the departures and releases of some stalwart veterans of the defense.
Now, we find a unit whose average age of the starting lineup projected to start the season opener is just a bit over 26 years old, which is a far cry from the ‘old and slow’ days that had been talked about before anybody was really even either old or slow.
There was even talk of a shift in culture that some of the older players saw, which is a topic that Troy Polamalu touched on on his way out the door, which raised some concerns about the makeup of the current Steelers team and whether or not they would be able to come together as a family, as had championship teams in the past.
I personally spent a portion of the offseason locating who the next group of leaders would be, which was a topic especially crucial for the defensive side of the ball, for obvious reasons, given the turnover and the number of young players being counted upon.
One of those leaders that I identified just so happens to be the player on defense projected to be the oldest starter on opening day: cornerback William Gay. And recently we’ve gotten a chance to see some of that, or at least hear about it, from the team’s rookie class.
A former fifth-round draft pick of head coach Mike Tomlin’s initial draft class back in 2007, it’s interesting to note that 2015 is actually only the second time in Gay’s career in which he is penciled in as a starter during the offseason, in spite of the tremendous amount of games that he has started over the course of his career.
Outside of reserve safety Will Allen, Gay is the oldest member of the secondary now, and he also has the most playing experience, both overall and with the Steelers, entering his eighth season with the club. He knows the system about as well as the coaches at this stage of his career, and we saw him use that knowledge to return three interceptions for touchdowns last year.
One of the Steelers’ new ballhawks, rookie second-round draft pick Senquez Golson, has evidently figured out just how valuable Gay can be in his development, so he has been in the veteran’s presence as much as possible this offseason.
“I have been trying to stay in his pocket as much as I can and learn as much as I can”, he said recently during OTAs, asking about what he sees when he reads a play, what is going on in his head, and other things he can hope to pick up from Gay’s years of experience.
Hopefully Doran Grant and Gerod Holliman are also paying attention. Gay may not have always had the most respect in the league, but he is one of the leaders now, and he has the acumen to pass on his knowledge in a meaningful and valuable way to the next generation.