Over the course of the past couple of years, the Pittsburgh Steelers have undergone an uncommon amount of change, which could have been largely correlated with the fact that the team had finished 8-8 in consecutive seasons while failing to advance to the postseason.
In deference to general manager Kevin Colbert, the attitude used to approach the offseason in those years was that this was an 8-8 team and these were 8-8 players. It’s little surprise that a lot of things changed during those years.
But the Steelers are now coming off a season in which they finished with a record of 11-5, going 8-2 down the stretch and winning their last four games to claim their first AFC North title since the 2010 season. Correspondingly, we’ve seen a great deal less change.
While the roster turnover as a whole may not have been significant, however, there were some significant departures, including three starters on the defensive side of the ball. And that includes arguably their best player in the past two decades at their weakest defensive position, cornerback Ike Taylor.
There is a reason the recently retired Taylor was just named to the Steelers’ all-modern era defense. Quite simply, the only cornerback for the Steelers that has been better than him in recent memory is enshrined in Canton. Taylor no doubt will never make it into the Hall of Fame, but that is no knock against his talents.
While Dick LeBeau’s defenses of the mid- to late-2000s were no doubt excellent and well-stocked with talent, it is equally assured that it was the presence of a cornerback of Taylor’s quality in terms of speed and coverage ability that allowed the defense the flexibility to be dynamic and challenge the offense in unconventional ways.
Standing at 6’2” with a strong frame and excellent speed, Taylor lacked only good hands to be an All-Pro cornerback at the height of his playing career, as attested to by the fact that he intercepted just 14 passes during his 12-year career. Only once did he intercept more than two passes in a season. He failed to record a takeaway in his last two seasons, though his final year was limited to five games.
Still, it was his ability to jam receivers at the line, to play physically without drawing penalties, to use his speed to make up ground, and to leap to defend the ball in front of an opponent’s top target, whom he shadowed across the field, that made Taylor such an essential contributor to the Steelers’ success over the past decade.
If ever there was a season in which he was deserving of Pro Bowl accolades, it might be the 2007 season, the first under Mike Tomlin, after rebounding from a benching the year before. He recorded 80 tackles, one of his three career sacks, one of two career forced fumbles, 16 passes defensed, and a career-high three interceptions, one of which he returned for a 51-yard touchdown.
The Steelers have just stocked up on young defensive backs who have exhibited ball skills in the college ranks, but quite simply, there’s not another defensive back on this roster as physically gifted, nor as hardworking, as Taylor was. Nor will there likely ever be another player more truly dedicated to his team. While it was time for him to move on in his career, I think we can all agree that it’s nice to see him working as a coaching intern with the team this offseason.