If there was a Mt. Rushmore (or whatever the opposite of that would be) for Steelers figures who have taken a lot of heat in recent years, William Gay, their much maligned defensive back, would certainly be a candidate to have his likeness chiseled in stone.
Gay, a fifth round draft choice out of Louisville in 2007 who spent his first five seasons in Pittsburgh, was often a lightning rod for criticism, early in his career. Much of these slings and arrows were the result of a rather poor 2009 campaign after Gay was promoted to the No. 2 corner position when Bryant McFadden left via free agency.
McFadden came back to the Steelers in a trade after spending one year in Arizona, and Gay was demoted back to the nickel position. Unfortunately, he was given the unenviable task of covering Rob Gronkowski in a game in November of 2010 which resulted in the future tight end beast catching three touchdown passes and mostly making No. 22 look lost and over-matched.
Even though Gronk would soon become the measuring stick for his position, Gay's infamous night at Heinz Field was forever burned into the brains of Steelers fans everywhere.
You know what they say about reputations, once they take a hit, it's kind of hard to bounce back.
However, Gay actually was able to repair the damage done by his poor '09 and '10 seasons when he played so well in 2011, he was promoted back to the No. 2 corner position in place of a struggling and often injured McFadden.
Whether it was due to a change in attitude or because of working with first year secondary coach Carnell Lake, Gay actually became an asset in 2011 and was credited with 14 passes defensed and two interceptions--including a pick in the waning moments of the Steelers 24-17 victory in Cincinnati that sealed the deal when the Bengals were deep in Pittsburgh territory.
Believe it or not, Gay became such a valuable commodity that when he left as a free agent following the 2011 season, some fans actually took pause. Of course, to most fans, Gay never did overcome his reputation for, you know, sucking, so when he left, and Keenan Lewis performed so admirably in his place a season ago, people saw it as addition by subtraction.
After playing at almost a Pro Bowl caliber in 2012, Lewis left for New Orleans as an unrestricted free agent, and much like McFadden in 2010, Gay was brought back into the fold in March after being released by the Cardinals. But unlike McFadden, Gay was brought in to provide depth and play the nickel position, while third year player Cortez Allen would man the No. 2 spot.
However, Allen struggled early on in 2013 with injuries and poor play, and Gay once again found himself in the No. 2 position, providing solid and steady play.
Back-tracking just a bit. If you've ever seen NFL Films highlights of Pittsburgh's magical run to Super Bowl XLIII, you may remember coach Mike Tomlin's famous chant of "Big Play Willie Gay" as he greeted the second year player right outside the locker room after a crucial December victory in Baltimore that clinched the AFC North crown for the Steelers. Gay sealed the victory when he intercepted a Joe Flacco pass in the end zone in the game's waning moments.
That was the first pick of Gay's career, so it was obviously just a play on words by Tomlin, probably in an attempt to pump up his future starting cornerback.
Now, with six INTs for his career, as well as his earlier reputation as a poor cover corner, Gay hasn't done a whole lot to permanently earn the "Big Play" moniker.
However, in the context of the Steelers recent struggles with making splash plays on defense, Gay may soon become a bit of a folk hero.
Since January 23, 2011, the Steelers have four defensive touchdowns, and Gay has scored two of them--including a 21 yard pick six late in Sunday's 27-11 victory in Cleveland (the first defensive touchdown for the Steelers since the last time they played in Cleveland).
In addition to that, Gay sacked Browns quarterback Jason Campbell early in the third quarter, resulting in a fumble that Will Allen returned 49 yards to set up a first and goal from the four yard line. On the following play, Ben Roethlisberger connected with Emmanuel Sanders to make the score 20-3 and take most of the doubt out of the outcome.
So, in a season in-which impact plays by the defense have been very few and far between, Gay was responsible for the two biggest in a little under two quarters and helped turn a tight contest into a much needed runaway.
Big Play Willie Gay? Perhaps not, but William Gay is a pretty darn good player, and if defensive touchdowns were currency, guys like Troy Polamalu would be asking him for a loan.