By Matthew Marczi
When a cornerback has a nice, yet quiet game, rarely is he ever praised for his fine work. If, however, he should get burned deep once out of 50 snaps in coverage, he is sure to hear it the next day.
Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback William Gay seems to be particularly prone to excessively negative analysis as his positive contributions to the team go conveniently ignored. It is the nature of the cornerback position, to some degree, certainly, but Gay tends to get the harshest treatment.
With that in mind, I believe it is fair to point out some of the above the line play that he has been able to provide the team as a spot starter while filling in for Cortez Allen. I think it goes without saying that the Steelers were not doomed simply because Gay was forced into the starting lineup. They may be 0-3, but that is not why.
First, we should take a look at some of his snaps in pass coverage. Gay is criticized for not being physical enough in coverage and for playing off the ball too much. It is a fair criticism for certain occasions, but the scheme is the scheme for a reason, and it is knowledgeable players such as Gay who make it work. Take this passing play in the first quarter:
The situation is second and 14 on the opening drive for the Chicago Bears. They had been driving down the field well until Troy Polamalu blew up a first-down pass to Brandon Marshall for a four-yard loss. Here on second down, Gay is playing off Earl Bennett, knowing the Bears have 14 yards to go for a first. He senses immediately that the ball is coming his way and gets a good break off the throw to hold Bennett for no yards after the catch and just four yards in total, setting up a third and 10.
This second down and nine play is a similar set up, with a similar result. This time, the pass goes to Alshon Jeffery, and he receives the ball at the line of scrimmage, however. Notice Gay camping directly at the first-down marker. Once again, he gets a good break off the throw and is on the receiver by the time he crosses the line of scrimmage. What’s more, Gay does a nice job of getting his helmet on the ball, and he actually knocks the ball loose. Unfortunately, the receiver is able to fall on it immediately, and actually ends up gaining an extra yard or two in the process.
If there is one thing that Gay is generally given credit for, however, it is being a disciple of the system, so it is not surprising that he knows how to defend this type of pass play. Perhaps one of the biggest myths about him is that he is supposedly weak against the run. Of course, it is a bad week to choose to take a stab at dispelling that myth as he prepares to defend Adrian Peterson, the man whose bull rush over him created that myth in the first place. Still, Gay has been an asset in run support this season thus far, and the last game was no exception.
Truth be told, Gay was stronger against the run during the first two games of the season than he was in the last, but the following two plays demonstrate that he was no slouch last week either.
In this scenario, the Steelers are backed up near their own end zone, and it is second and three. Of course, the success of this play is a schematic success (Jarvis Jones crashing in, the ILBs coming in to fill the gaps, the left side sealing off a cutback), but Gay does a nice job of attacking on this play and bringing down the shifty Matt Forte by the legs, short of a first down. On the next play, Jones wrestles Forte down from behind, forcing the Bears to kick a field goal.
Here we have yet another example of why William Gay is an asset in this scheme as he brings Forte down behind the line of scrimmage for a two-yard loss. With Jones dashing in, the Steelers leave the defensive right side entirely open aside from Gay, leaving him one on one with Forte. He either makes the play or he doesn’t. This time, he makes it, in part due to getting a nice jump on the play and preventing Forte from being able to break the run outside.
Is Gay a perfect player? Of course not Did he have a flawless game last Sunday? No. He was one of the four players to miss a tackle on a first quarter reception by Martellus Bennett, and his strip attempt on the long run by Forte is still a head-scratcher. But he is a solid and valuable contributor to the defense, and he deserves to be recognized for his positive contributions. Criticism is fine when a player makes a critical mistake, but give credit when credit is due as well.