Back during the off-season, when everyone was worried sick that the Steelers wouldn't be able to sign veteran cornerback Ike Taylor, I went on record as saying I thought that Lamarr Woodley was the bigger concern in-terms of getting Pittsburgh's free agents under contract. I thought Taylor was really good at his craft of covering the other team's top receiver, but he certainly wasn't GREAT at it. He's not Darrelle Revis.
Besides that, Taylor is on the wrong side of 30, and you don't make a long-term commitment to a guy of that age when he's playing a position that requires flat-out speed and quickness.
Woodley had to be the top priority. He's young and productive, and you don't want to overpay for older players like Taylor. You want to stay as young as possible on defense. That's how you stay on top in the NFL.
Well, as it turns out, I couldn't have been more wrong in my assessment of Pittsburgh's free agents.The team did manage to sign Woodley AND Taylor, and both are certainly valuable commodities, but man, Taylor has stepped up his game better than even his biggest supporters could have envisioned when they were wondering if he was going to leave for more money. If Ike Taylor isn't the mvp of Pittsburgh's defense so far in 2011, I don't know who is.
A couple of weeks ago, during the Steelers impressive win over the Titans, CBS color commentator Dan Dierdorf remarked over and over again about how Titans' quarterback Matt Hasselbeck hadn't so much as looked in Taylor's direction the entire day. Dierdorf even wondered if Taylor would even have to have his uniform washed after the game.
That's when it hit me. Ike Taylor has turned himself into a shutdown cornerback at the age of 31. How many guys can say that? You look in the box score following most Steelers games this year, and you'd be lucky to see even one "pass defensed" by Ike Taylor. And it's not because he's getting scorched, it's because he's covering his man so well, there is simply no point in trying to throw it in his direction.
This was a man who was in Bill Cowher's doghouse in 2006 and was benched at a time of his career when he should have been in his prime. Little did we know Taylor was still a half-a-decade away from reaching his prime.
Taylor has become so good at covering the other team's best receiver that we barely even care about his career-long inability to intercept a pass. Hey, if the other team is afraid to throw the football in your direction, it doesn't really matter if you can intercept a pass or not.
A lot of fans normally worry about a guy losing it and not being as hungry after he signs a huge deal, but Taylor, a workout freak, seems to be in the best shape of his career. He looks determined to earn every penny of his big contract, and he's become a perfectionist.
Last week, when Jason Hill, Taylor's man, caught an 18 yard touchdown pass in the Jaguars' game, Ike was reportedly inconsolable afterwards. They say a cornerback is supposed to have a short-memory, but I liked the fact that Taylor was so bothered by the Hill touchdown because I knew he would go into yesterday's game against Larry Fitzgerald more determined than ever to show everyone that he's one of the top corners in the game.
I was interested to see how well Taylor would perform against Fitzgerald on Sunday, and if he really has become a true shut-down corner. If you remember back to Super Bowl XLIII, Taylor had his hands full with Fitzgerald, and towards the end of the game, you might say Taylor was on the ropes as Fitzgerald took over in the 4th quarter. I knew Fitzgerald would get his looks in Sunday's game. He's arguably the best wide receiver in football, and he's going to win his share of battles, even if he is going up against a top-notch corner like Taylor. Well, Taylor and Fitzgerald went at it the whole game like two super-heavyweights. When it was all said and done, Fitzgerald had four catches for 78 yards. He's not going to beat you with that stat-line. Ike Taylor did his job, once again. You can't ask for more than that.
Like most shut-down corners, Taylor takes pride in taking out the opponent's top guy. After the game in Arizona, as he was running off the field, Taylor reportedly was screaming, "Wes Welker! Wes Welker!" The New England Patriots come to town next week, and I know the Steelers' defense will have its hands full preparing for Tom Brady and New England's high-powered offense.
However, the Patriots are also going to have to prepare and be ready for Ike Taylor. After all, that's what teams do when they're about to go up against a shut-down cornerback.