Patrick Peterson, Richard Sherman, Josh Norman, and William Gay. That is a list of some of the top corners in the NFL according to the newly released corner back metrics at Football Outsiders. Peterson, Norman and Sherman are no brainers, but Gay isn’t a name you see on a lot of best cornerback lists.
There are several reasons Gay hasn’t received his due credit, most of which aren’t necessarily his fault. The obvious reason is that Pittsburgh’s secondary has been extremely porous in recent years, so it’s easy to discount Gay’s contributions. Saying you’re the best corner on the Pittsburgh secondary the last two years is like celebrating that you were able to save your television while the rest of the house burned down.
Secondly, Gay doesn’t turn in the glamour stats other corners do. For example, Sherman has 24 interceptions since 2011. Gay has 11 in his career. Like it or not, the people who vote on honors like the Pro Bowl or All-Pro lists look at those so called “splash plays” while ignoring the rest of a players work. Anyone can watch a game and tell you a player that intercepts a pass made a great play. Most fans, and infuriatingly announcers, won’t talk about the corner that’s covering the wide receiver so well the quarterback won’t even look his way. It sure would be nice if Gay could pick off more passes, particularly since he’s very good once he takes off with the ball in his hands, but there’s much more that goes into being a corner than interceptions.
Additionally, working against Gay is that he’s largely anonymous to fans outside Pittsburgh. He doesn’t introduce himself as having attended ‘Swaggin’ University’ at the start of prime time games, he doesn’t call a lot of attention to himself outside of his elaborate touchdown dances, and if most non-Steelers fans do remember him it’s likely as the guy Aaron Rodgers picked on in the Superbowl even though that was five and half years ago.
According to Football Outsider’s metrics, Gay ranked ninth in average yards per target, fourth in success rate (success rate measures how often a defensive player is successful at preventing an offensive player from getting the yardage they need for a first down or touchdown), and first in estimated target rate (basically what percentage of plays quarterbacks tried to throw at a corner. Better corners have lower percentages since their receiver won’t be open as much while worse ones will have higher percentages since their responsibility is always open). Basically, this means that the receiver Gay was covering was rarely open and when he was thrown to Gay stopped the player for a minimal gain. In other words he did the exact job description of what a corner should do.
To put Gay’s target rate in context it’s important to note that two players on the defense that he was lined up with, Antwon Blake and Ross Cockrell, were graded out as having some of the worst statistics among corners. Quarterbacks were having so much success targeting those two players that they rarely saw the need to go after Gay. However, even if this explains Gay being targeted the least in the league it still wouldn’t affect his impressive success rate an average yard per target scores.
Pittsburgh still needs help in the secondary. Blake is mercifully gone and Cockrell is young enough he could still improve. Artie Burns and Sean Davis are going to get some playing time this year and are unknown quantities at this point. Luckily, the Steelers have a stud at the position to provide some balance to a raw unit.
For more information on the method of how the stats are determined I’d encourage you to visit the list of the top 20 corners of 2015 on Football Outsiders here.