I think there are two themes that best summarize the career of Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback William Gay as he transitions into yet another stage of it in his 11th season in the NFL: necessity, and convenience. Much of his playing time, or specific roles, have been thrust upon him by necessity; yet his steadiness and availability have also been a source of convenience for the team over the years.
It would seem that the Steelers, at least for now, don’t have a great deal of need for him anymore. No longer a starter even in the slot, Gay has been reduced to receiving work in the comparatively little-used dime package, though the grouping has been more prevalent than in recent years.
But for years, the Steelers—and the Cardinals, for one season—had so few options that they often had to turn to Gay as a starter on the outside, where he has never been at his best. After he filled in more than admirably in that role in his second year in 2008 for the injured Bryant McFadden, the Steelers let the latter walk, leaving Gay to start in 2009; it was a borderline disaster. He was clearly in over his head, and he was demoted by the end of the year, bringing McFadden back via trade in 2010.
Outside of a couple of games in 2010—against a rookie Rob Gronkowski and then in the Super Bowl—he was his usual steady self that year, but he left in free agency in 2011. Released a year later, the Steelers brought him back in 2012, and suddenly had repeated need of him as a starter.
It wasn’t until last season when they drafted Artie Burns in the first round that the team was finally able to reliably set him back into the slot after the first several games, and then full-time around midseason when Burns was given the starting job.
This year, they uncovered Mike Hilton out of nowhere, a first-year former undrafted free agent, who has been able to take over the primary slot duties. The two rotated in the nickel in the opener, but since then, Gay has only seen time in the dime package.
The dime defender is a good role for a player such as Gay, however, as it actually carries with it the requirement of a high degree of knowledge and intelligence, as well as adaptability. The dime player, replacing an inside linebacker, is something of a rover that can play like a cornerback, a safety, or a linebacker.
For as many as there are who wanted to run him out of town, I don’t think that even they would deny that he is among the best that the team has had in years in terms of turning tape study into plays on the field.
This carries over not just to his own performance on the field, but also to his communication with his teammates, helping them to see what he sees. Quite a convenient role for both himself and the team in this final stage of his career, I think.