On the vast Saint Vincent lawns in the morning and again on the sizzling afternoons, Ray Horton floats behind his defensive backs as they drop and cover, rewarding them with praise for a seamless episode, reinforcing principles regardless of the particular outcome.
"That's nice work, nice work," he barks. "Protect deep; break up. Ike, you're fine. You're fine."
The defensive backs coach probably hadn't intended to state policy, but Ike Taylor is apparently fine at left corner, back at the top of the depth chart and evidently clean-slated by a new coaching staff that looks by half like the old coaching staff, but under a head coach who can't possibly be any newer.
"I try not to have any preconceived notions about what guys are capable of," Mike Tomlin said after the afternoon's rather ferocious session.
That, too, is policy, and though it wasn't specific to Taylor, the fifth-year defender out of the University of Louisiana-Lafayette ("oo la la" to the chronically hip) has to feel like a beneficiary.
Just as someone saw something that morphed a virtually infallible component of the Steelers' celebrated defense into a screaming liability last November, someone this summer weighed that against Taylor's immense athleticism -- and said, "Yeah, we can fix this."
To review, inside of 10 months Taylor went from regularly drawing the opposition's top receiver, just as regularly turning him into a nonfactor, intercepting passes in the AFC Championship game and the Super Bowl (at the Steelers' 5 as they led Seattle by four no less) to not even starting in five of the last six games in 2006. The only reason he started last year's final game at Cincinnati was that Deshea Townsend was out with a hand injury.
Beginning on the afternoon of Nov. 5, when Denver's Javon Walker outmaneuvered Taylor on twin fade routes for touchdowns and scalded him twice more for gains of 38 and 61 yards, Ike ceased being the player who eliminated the threats posed by people like Chad Johnson and Randy Moss and cocooned into the kind of corner the Steelers wouldn't dream of giving a $22.5 million, five-year contract.
Except they already had.
"That Super Bowl year, I could do no wrong," Taylor said yesterday. "You can't ever be perfect, especially as a cornerback, but I came close to a perfect season. I knew that wouldn't last forever. Something had to give. It's an up and down thing. It's like the stock market."
Cornerback is assuredly among the most difficult of the football occupations. You're either running down Ferrari's or darting into the path of oncoming trucks. You are highly conspicuous. The facts of NFL life are that you are going to get beat. NFL receivers beat corners almost by definition. If they don't, they're not NFL receivers for long.
All of which is what made Taylor so special in the first place. As recently as October, he was holding Johnson to one catch for 11 yards and a mere seven volumes of trash talk. He held Moss to two catches and 20 yards at Oakland.
But confidence is a quixotic thing. It gets lost like car keys, or it swells to some indefinable dimension at which a bad play or three rattles a corner so badly he overcompensates into additional mistakes.
Taylor pleaded not guilty to both.
"No, look, I've been dealing with adversity my whole life," he said. "When I was in college, I was a running back in my junior year. When I came to my first training camp they had Dwayne Washington and Chad Scott. I'm a fourth-round [draft pick] and in my second year, they draft a corner [Ricardo Colclough] in the second round. The next year they take another corner in the second round [Bryant McFadden].
"It's always felt like I'm going to be the odd man out, so what can you do other than work hard? I'm playin' for the 10 other guys on the defense. I know we have great fans all over the world and I appreciate them, and I respect the coaches, but really, I just don't want to let those 10 down. That's all I'm trying to do."
In the hottest minutes of yesterday, Taylor lined up one-on-one with Santonio Holmes, the fleet wideout. Holmes burst off the line like a cougar just as Taylor began to backpedal, gave Ike a little stop-and-go move that Taylor dutifully shadowed, and streaked down the sideline.
But Holmes didn't come close to out-running Ike Taylor. Not really.
"Ike, that's perfect!" hollered Horton, momentarily ignoring perhaps one slim imperfection. "Just catch the ball next time."Matt Freed, Post-Gazette
Ike Taylor works around Nate Washington at training camp yesterday at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe.
Click photo for larger image.