For the first time in his career, veteran William Gay entered this 2015 season as the top cornerback on his unit, the clear number one. Though that says as much about those around him as it does himself, it’s clear why the Pittsburgh Steelers value him as much as they do, from his intelligence and versatility to his ability to make plays, which saw him return three interceptions for touchdowns last season.
Gay had a more effective afternoon on Sunday than in the season opener, a fact that can apply to just about everybody on the field on defense. He put an end to the 49ers’ first drive by playing the pocket and stripping the ball out of the grasp of Anquan Boldin on third and seven.
Whether this play was an incomplete pass or a reception for a first down and a subsequent strip and fumble, Gay gets credit either way for making a great play on the ball. He also gets credit for his discipline as a tackler against the run, as shown on first and goal early in the second quarter on the edge.
The play ended up not counting due to a hold, but otherwise it would have gone for a loss of four yards. On the very next play, Gay completely read a screen pass to Torrey Smith out of the quarterback’s hand, beating the two screen blockers out on the edge to blow up the play, tackling the catch for a three-yard loss.
Late in the game, Boldin completed a third-down reception in front of him, though at this point the game was already out of reach. On third and three, the offense caught him turning to his outside corner to give him a signal, snapping the ball with his eyes away from the play, which forced him to react slowly to break on the short pass.
Later on the drive, the 49ers caught Gay between coverages, though he doesn’t necessary receive blame on the play, which was a 14-yard gain to Boldin. From the 37-yard line, the 49ers went three wide, with Gay covering the right slot.
With both receivers on his side going vertical, Gay dropped to cover the flat, but the pressure never got home, which stressed the coverage, and he was stuck between shallow and deep zones as the quarterback finally made his throw six seconds after the snap.
On the following play, he showed his willingness to take on a bigger player, getting a shot on tight end Vernon Davis on a drag route. The hit came at the tight end’s midsection, who left the field after the play.
Chances are high that Gay will never play a perfect game, but he is a good enough, and versatile enough play to allow the Steelers to play defense the way that they need to in order to find success as they try to establish their presence. He’ll put on some bad tape every now and then, but at the end of the day, he is a player that you can count on.