The Steelers signed Ike Taylor to a four-year contract worth $28 million before the season because he was the best of the existing cornerbacks on the roster and there wasn't a starter-capable player behind him.
And, despite what happened to him in the team's sudden and stunning playoff loss in Denver, Taylor will return and assume a similar role to the one he performed this season.
This time, though, the cornerback position should be much stronger in 2012, even though the Steelers finished the regular season with the NFL's No. 1-ranked pass defense. That is because the Steelers expect two or three of their young cornerbacks to contend for starting spots -- a scenario that did not exist when this season began.
Taylor's spot will not be open, but the one opposite him could be if the Steelers part with two of their veteran corners -- Bryant McFadden and/or William Gay. One of the contenders will be cornerback Keenan Lewis, who finally emerged in his third season and played well as the fifth defensive back in the sub packages.
The others will be rookies Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen, who were drafted one round apart and could do for their position what LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons did for linebackers in '07 and Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown did for receivers in '10.
"It's positive for all of us," Lewis said Tuesday at the team's South Side facility, where players were meeting with coach Mike Tomlin. "I see a bright side to it. I think in a few years we will have a good group.
"I think I made good progress. I didn't really showcase anything my first two seasons. I came back stronger and a more mature person this year. I will be ready to compete for that spot next year."
There was nothing positive about what happened in Denver, not when Taylor picked the wrong time to have a personal nightmare -- giving up passes of 51 and 58 yards that led to touchdowns and getting beat for the winning 80-yard touchdown on the first play of overtime. All three receptions were by Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, who didn't have a reception longer than 47 yards in the regular season.
Taylor was so disconsolate after the game he declined to speak to media. He was at the Steelers facility Tuesday and again gave the media the same stiff-arm he got from Thomas on the winning touchdown.
"We made those plays [during the season]," Gay said. "We just didn't make those plays the other night."
McFadden, who began the season as a starter and fell quickly on the depth chart, is not expected to be brought back. And Gay, who replaced McFadden as the starter, is an unrestricted free agent because he signed a one-year contract before the 2011 season.
Gay had a solid season, despite getting beat for a 30-yard touchdown in Denver, but he could be eased out because of the three young players behind him. There is a possibility Gay could be switched to free safety because he plays better when his back is not to the quarterback.
"I don't know what Kevin Colbert or coach Mike [Tomlin] are going to do, but I want to be here," Gay said. "That's the bottom line."
But the Steelers have high hopes for Brown, a third-round choice from Texas; and Allen, a fourth-round pick from The Citadel.
Brown caught the eye of the coaches when he led the team in special-teams tackles (15), despite missing the final four games on the injured-reserve list. He is athletic, tough and relentless.
Allen was another special-teams terror who emerged as the dime back in the sub packages because of his ability to run and cover. He did not play in Denver because he was placed on injured reserve with a separated right shoulder.
"They will [contribute] next year," Lewis said. "Those guys work hard every day. You can just see how they progress. It's similar to some of the things I did."
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @gerrydulac. First Published January 11, 2012 5:00 AM