A coverage matchup that could be Taylor-made for stardom

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TAMPA, Fla. -- What a fabulous moment in time: the best cover cornerback in NFL history setting up to interview the young corner who has to be the best cover guy on the field Sunday if the Steelers are going to win Super Bowl XLIII. Ike Taylor doesn't appear to be the least bit intimidated by the idea of trying to stop Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. But Taylor clearly was in awe when Deion Sanders stopped by to chat.

" 'Prime Time,' " Taylor said, quietly. "That's who I've always wanted to be like."

His answers to Sanders' questions for the NFL Network weren't nearly as interesting as their conversation afterward. Taylor asked if he could ship Sanders his game tapes to be critiqued. Sanders agreed, saying something about his people calling Taylor's people to make the arrangements.

"I feel like my game isn't where I'd like it to be yet," Taylor said. "I'm always asking my coaches for advice on what I can do better. I ask our receivers. I go to our offensive coordinator [Bruce Arians] and say, 'Tell me, how would you attack me?' I want to know what people think my weaknesses are so I can work on them. I want to keep getting better.

"I truly believe I haven't played my best game yet."

It would be wonderful if it happens Sunday, but that seems like a lot to ask. The great Fitzgerald, who has been as close to unstoppable in this postseason as a player can be, is only one reason. A bigger factor is Taylor still is a baby in the NFL game and as a cornerback. This is just his fourth season as a Steelers starter. He didn't start playing corner until he was a senior in college at Louisiana-Lafayette.

"I've had to learn on the go," Taylor said.

The progress has been remarkable. "If he ever learns how to catch the ball, he'll be in the Pro Bowl every year. He's that good," teammate Larry Foote said. Taylor's stone hands notwithstanding, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has so much faith in the man that he has assigned him to follow Fitzgerald all over the Super Bowl field.

Sure, the Steelers don't have much choice. Cornerback Bryant McFadden can't run with Fitzgerald, and Deshea Townsend and William Gay are too short to jump with him. But they also have plenty of faith in Taylor. "He's 6 feet 2 and runs a 4.2. He'll definitely be right there with Fitzgerald," Townsend said yesterday.

It will be the most telling matchup of the game.

At least that seemed to be the opinion of Warren Sapp, another NFL Network talking head, a legend as a defensive lineman during his day and a legend now as a "Dancing With The Stars" stud.

"The way you make a name for yourself is by finding a target," Sapp boomed in Taylor's ear. "Well, I don't think there's a bigger target on the face of the Earth than No. 11."

Fitzgerald.

"I'm always up for a challenge," Taylor told Sapp in a much lower voice. Later, he elaborated: "It's just something that's in me. I think it has to do with the city I come from. New Orleans. I had a tough, tough road growing up. I've had to hold my own for as long as I can remember. You couldn't be soft in my city. If you were, you got run over."

It's a good thing Taylor isn't afraid of a tough fight. Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner and Fitzgerald certainly will provide one.

"You're looking at Joe Montana and Jerry Rice right there," Taylor said.

Think about that.

Wow.

"Fitzgerald is a beast," Taylor said. "What he's done in this postseason is unbelievable. He's breaking records. Not just records, but Jerry Rice records. Ain't no one else doing that.

"But ... "

Drum roll ...

"I like myself, too."

That's comforting, if you ask me.

Still, Taylor figures to get safety help with Fitzgerald, although LeBeau will have to pick his spots because the Cardinals' other two 1,000-yard receivers -- Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston -- also are dangerous. Maybe the best way to stop all three is to turn loose linebackers James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons and sic 'em on Warner. Fitzgerald can't make the terrific catches to beat the Steelers the way he beat Philadelphia, Carolina and Atlanta on his extraordinary postseason odyssey if Warner doesn't have time to get him the ball.

"It's still going to come down to the secondary," Taylor predicted.

To him, actually.

"I feel like I have 10 other guys depending on me," he said. "I sure don't want to let them down."

Unless Sanders comes out of retirement and lines up opposite him, Taylor doesn't figure to wilt under the brightest lights in sports. This is not Taylor's first Super Bowl. So many of us remember Super Bowl XL and the Steelers' 21-10 win against Seattle for Jerome Bettis' marvelous homecoming and retirement in Detroit, Willie Parker's record 75-yard touchdown run and Hines Ward's 43-yard clinching catch of an Antwaan Randle El pass. Too few realize Taylor played a huge part in the drama. With the Steelers leading, 14-10, in the fourth quarter, he intercepted a Matt Hasselbeck pass at the Steelers' 5.

"I remember that pick," Taylor said, smiling. He also had an interception two weeks earlier against Denver in the AFC championship game. He might drop a bunch, but he seems to hold on to the pig when it counts.

"I really remember Hasselbeck tackling me [after a 24-yard return]," Taylor said. "That ticked me off."

The feeling passed. Three plays after the interception, Ward pulled in Randle El's pass and the Super Bowl MVP award. Soon after that, the confetti dropped from the heavens -- OK, the Ford Field rafters -- and NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue handed Steelers owner Dan Rooney the franchise's fifth Lombardi Trophy.

"I was so exhausted after that game," Taylor said. "You talk about leaving 110 percent on the field. That's what I did that night. I didn't go out after the game. I just slept."

What a peaceful sleep it must have been.

Taylor needs another restful slumber Sunday night, one uninterrupted by nightmares and horrible visions of a No. 11 in a red-and-white uniform.

That's the Steelers' best chance of getting a record sixth Lombardi.

It's Taylor's best chance of getting something very important to him.

A little Prime Time respect.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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