There was a time when William Gay was best known for taking to the microphone at the parade honoring the Super Bowl XLIII champion Steelers and doing a rendition of, well, no one really knows for sure.
It seemed to be a cross between a rap and the Steelers fight song, and it was immortalized on the Jim Rome national radio show, which wore out the audio of Gay's vocal performance on an almost daily basis.
In terms of awkward world championship celebrations, it was topped only by Mark Madsen of the Los Angeles Lakers and his dance moves from 2002.
Later on, Gay became a lightning rod for criticism for another reason. He was viewed as a scapegoat in the secondary when he failed to defend well in one-on-one coverage in some important games.
There were his struggles defending Packers receiver Jordy Nelson in Super Bowl XLV when Nelson caught nine passes for 140 yards and a touchdown. Then there was a game in 2011 against the Ravens when Gay was beaten for a 26-yard touchdown with eight seconds remaining.
So when Gay departed the Steelers after the 2011 season for a free-agent contract with the Arizona Cardinals, there was barely a shrug from the fan base. Now they're tripping over themselves to pat him on the back.
After a one-year absence, Gay is back with the Steelers and playing some of the best football of his career.
In his seventh NFL season and sixth with the Steelers, Gay is hearing the plaudits after a standout performance in Sunday's 19-16 victory against the Ravens. Signed to add depth to the secondary after Keenan Lewis left via free agency, Gay started in place of an ineffective Cortez Allen and came through with a couple of huge plays that prevented Baltimore touchdowns.
One came early in the third quarter after Jacoby Jones initially beat Gay on a post pattern. Flacco's pass was underthrown and Gay recovered in time to break it up. On Baltimore's next drive, Gay forced another incomplete pass in the end zone on third down that forced a field goal.
"When you play in a place like Pittsburgh, everything is scrutinized, everything is critiqued," veteran safety Ryan Clark said. "I think he's played extremely well for many years. I think it's one of those things sometimes you don't appreciate people until they leave. Then when they come back, you get to see what they bring to a team and the difference they can make."
Clark echoes the sentiments of many in the organization. While others on the outside only saw Gay's glaring mistakes, those on the inside valued his consistency and dependability over the years.
"Coach Mike [Tomlin] says often that your tape is your resume and he had good tape when he was here and good tape when he was in Arizona," Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "We knew he was a good man. We had lost a corner and he definitely fit us. I was glad Mike brought him back."
A strong argument can be made that Gay has been the Steelers' best cornerback this season. He has been targeted 36 times by opposing quarterbacks and has allowed only 22 receptions. More important, he has allowed an 8.6-yard average per reception, which is among the best in the league. He has not allowed a touchdown.
Allen, for example, has been targeted 15 times for 11 receptions and his yards-per-reception allowed is 15.5. Ike Taylor, the other starting cornerback, has been thrown at 39 times, has allowed 26 receptions for a 12.1 average and has allowed three touchdowns.
In addition to leading the team in passes defended with four, Gay leads all corners with 28 tackles. While others were saluting Gay for his pass breakups in the end zone, Taylor made it a point earlier this week to point out Gay's three tackles against the Ravens, all of which forced the Ravens into unfavorable downs and distances.
"There was third-and-8 and Ray Rice caught a ball in the flat and Gay made the tackle," Taylor said. "We're not going to talk about that, but that was crucial because that was in the red zone. The fans only remember plays they want to remember. But if you sit down and watch tape, there are bigger plays than those plays that these corners are making."
In LeBeau's scheme, the art of tackling and limiting big plays is not overlooked, especially by those who are the last line of defense.
"He's just extremely sound as a football player," Clark said of Gay. "He came out of college that way. When he got here he was ready to play football. He made plays early in his first training camp just because he was so technically sound and so good on his keys. His fundamentals are good. He gets to the upfield shoulder. He wrap-tackles. He's not one of those guys that just tries to cut or use his arms.
"He has evolved over the years, and what you see on the field now is the finished product."
NOTES -- Receiver Markus Wheaton (finger) and tight end Richard Gordon (toe) have been ruled out for the Raiders game. Kelvin Beachum (ribs), Jerricho Cotchery (abdomen), Ramon Foster (thumb), Marcus Gilbert (quad), Cameron Heyward (illness), Jarvis Jones (concussion), Brett Keisel (ribs), Heath Miller (not injury related), Lawrence Timmons (hand) and LaMarr Woodley (knee) are probable.
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published October 26, 2013 12:09 AM