There was a time when the Steelers routinely had cornerback Ike Taylor shadow some of the top receivers in the NFL, everyone from Chad Johnson to Terrell Owens to Steve Smith. But after one bad afternoon against Denver's Javon Walker in 2006, that defensive tactic was put in mothballs, right beside the four-man defensive-line experiment, seemingly never to be seen again.
Like pulling out an old sweater from the closet and realizing it still fits, the Steelers have had Taylor follow of two of the league's big-play receivers all over the field the past two games -- Plaxico Burress of the New York Giants and Santana Moss of the Washington Redskins. The results were so good -- heck, so overwhelmingly convincing -- they just might do it again Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts.
Only problem is, which receiver do they try to take away: Marvin Harrison or Reggie Wayne?
- Game: Steelers (6-2) vs. Indianpolis Colts (4-4), 4:15 p.m.
- Where: Heinz Field.
- TV: KDKA.
"You might see some of it," Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "You know what they say: If it ain't broke, don't mess with it."
"He's done an awesome job for two weeks," said safety Ryan Clark. "I don't see any reason to stop it."
The Steelers have the NFL's No. 1-ranked pass defense, allowing just 164 yards per game, and Taylor is one of the reasons.
He held Burress, a former teammate, to three catches for just 15 yards two weeks ago at Heinz Field. The coaches liked Taylor's performance so much they asked him to do the same against Moss, the Redskins' big-play threat who was second in the league in receiving yards and already had three catches of 50 yards or longer.
All Taylor did was hold Moss to two catches for 14 yards and broke up two other passes before Moss left the game in the fourth quarter after aggravating an injury.
That's five catches for 29 yards between two of the league's top receivers. The longest pass Taylor surrendered to them was 10 yards.
"Ike is a guy who embraces those kinds of challenges," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "It brings out the best in him. He has done a nice job on some top-caliber guys."
"If you know anything about Ike, he'll respond to any challenge," safety Troy Polamalu said. "It's his personality or makeup, I guess."
"They expect me to do that," Taylor said. "It's not anything new. But I'm not even saying me. I never want to say me. It's all about my teammates."
Once upon a time, Taylor was the team's shutdown cornerback, a tall, athletic player who could run with and, in the estimation of former coach Bill Cowher, outleap the receiver as well as any corner he had seen. The Steelers were so appreciative of Taylor's rapidly emerging talents they signed him to a five-year, $22.5 million contract before the 2006 season, making him one of the highest-paid cornerbacks in the league.
But, in Week 8 of that season against the Denver Broncos, Walker caught six passes for 137 yards and two touchdowns in a one-on-one matchup with Taylor. A couple games later, after his coach publicly threatened to bench him for his poor play, Taylor was beaten for a long pass against the Cleveland Browns and further angered Cowher when he was unaware of down and distance on several coverages.
This time, Taylor was yanked from the starting lineup and didn't start again until the final game of the season, and only then because of injury. He had gone from shutdown corner to sit-down corner in a matter of three games.
Now he is back, playing as he had done in 2005 and responding to the challenge of shutting down the other team's top receiver.
"It's the sign of being a good corner -- you have to forget the last play and move forward," said cornerback Deshea Townsend. "It's a good challenge. It makes him focus a little bit more. He's always had good ability and he's showing it."
"I didn't ever lose confidence," Taylor said. "Some matchups they like me, some matchups we're going to keep the same. It just depends on the coaching staff and what they want to do. It comes with the territory."
Gerry Dulac can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published November 7, 2008 5:00 AM