As it turns out, Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback William Gay really is better in the slot, and always has been. At least according to the stats compiled by Pro Football Focus, which encompasses his entire playing career, from his first snaps on defense in 2008 through to the 2016 season, when he transitioned back into the slot full-time.
The site posted a simple graphic on Tuesday with a straightforward caption: “William Gay is at his best in the slot”. The graphic provides the evidence. It shows a bar graph that records the percentage of defensive snaps per season in which he played in the slot, overlaid by a line graph indicating the yards that he allowed per snaps that season.
William Gay is at his best in the slot pic.twitter.com/GO096R4Yaf
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) August 1, 2017
There is a stark and clear parallel between the seasons in which he was primarily asked to line up outside and the seasons in which he struggled most to limit his opponents in terms of yardage. By far his two worst seasons are the two seasons in which he saw by far his highest volume of work on the outside.
The worst of his career was actually not so long ago, just back in 2014. That season, he played over 93 percent of his snaps aligned on the outside, and as a result he gave up easily the highest yards per snap in coverage statistic of his career, at 1.68 yards per coverage snap.
This was…not a good year for the secondary. Both Ike Taylor, on his last legs already, and Cortez Allen were dealing with injuries, or at the least, ineffectiveness. By the end of the year, they were lining up with the Munchkin Bunch of Antwon Blake and Gay on the outside with Brice McCain in the slot. It just was not good, all around.
The second-worst season of his career is probably the one you might expect, the 2009 season, his third year in the league. After a cameo of success leading up to a Super Bowl victory the year before, the Steelers let Bryant McFadden move on in free agency and Gay moved into the starting lineup. It didn’t go well. He played nearly 97 percent of his snaps on the outside and allowed 1.43 yards per coverage snap.
He has, otherwise, been better than you would think. He allowed just .67 yards per snap in coverage last season while taking over 70 percent of his snaps in the slot. The year before, he allowed .89 yards per coverage snap while playing about half the time in the slot.
He put up similar numbers in 2011 and 2013 when he spent roughly 40-50 percent of his snaps in the slot. The outlier is the 2010 season, but I suspect that this largely traces back to the disastrous game against the Patriots in Rob Gronkowski’s rookie season when he beat him for three touchdowns. Gay was otherwise pretty good that season.