It probably goes without say that during Ike Taylor's 13-year career with the Steelers, while he was certainly one of the most popular and entertaining players, the team's long-time cornerback was also very much under-appreciated.
If you're a Steelers fan, you know why Taylor spent his career in the defensive shadows of Troy Polamalu, James Harrision, James Farrior, Joey Porter and the like, and that's because Taylor was very bad at catching footballs. And if you're an NFL corner who has bad hands, you're not going to intercept many passes and you're not going to be considered among the best at your position.
Truthfully, Taylor actually was a very good corner, one who was often given the responsibility of man-to-man coverage on receivers the caliber of Chad Johnson, Terrell Owens and Larry Fitzgerald when they were in their prime, and more often than not, Taylor acquitted himself quite well.
However, he was often the butt of jokes for his inability to secure interceptions that were sometimes very easy to come by (and probably could have made him a few more bucks during his career). Here's a link to a feature on the Jimmy Kimmel show called "Mean Tweets--NFL Edition," where football players read some harsh and hilarious insults directed to them by fans. About three-fourths of the way through the clip, Taylor appears and reads: "Ike Taylor once caught a football...jk."
That particular mean Tweet probably came from a Steelers who, just seconds before, watched Taylor once again fail to hold onto a momentum-shifting interception. Some criticisms of football players are often a little unfair and over-the-top, but in the case of Taylor and intercepting passes, the critics had plenty of ammo. In 174 regular season games, Taylor had just 14 interceptions--basically one per season.
There's no doubt Taylor worked on his hands in practice, but catching a football is probably more a natural ability than an acquired skill, and he obviously never got the feel for it.
However, despite his career-long struggle with securing regular season INTs, Taylor had a surprisingly good percentage of nabbing picks in the postseason. In 14 playoff games--including 11 as a starting corner--he had three interceptions, and all three changed the momentum and led to touchdowns for the Steelers.
A quick review of Ike's postseason pick-off prowess but in reverse order so as to save the best for last:
In a wild card playoff game against the Jaguars at Heinz Field on January 29, 2008, Pittsburgh came storming back from an 18-point second-half deficit thanks to two quick fourth-quarter touchdowns, but still trailed 28-23 with less than 10 minutes remaining. However, Taylor picked-off a pass from Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard near mid-field and returned it 31-yards to the Jaguars' 16 yard line. This set up the go-ahead touchdown, but, unfortunately, the Steelers lost on a last-second field goal.
Two years earlier, in the AFC Championship game against the Broncos at Invesco Field at Mile High on January 22, 2006, Pittsburgh had just taken a 17-3 lead on a Jerome Bettis three-yard touchdown run with two-minutes left in the first half. On Denver's very next play from scrimmage, Taylor jumped in front of a floating pass by quarterback Jake Plummer and stepped out of bounds on the Broncos' 28-yard line. I couldn't find any clips of this play, but it happened on the Steelers sideline, and his teammates swarmed Taylor and celebrated like he just picked up a 7-10 split. Six plays later, Ben Roethlisberger found Hines Ward in the end zone for a 17-yard score and what proved to be an insurmountable 24-3 lead, as Pittsburgh marched to Super Bowl XL with a 34-17 victory.
Fast-forward to the Super Bowl played at Ford Field in Detroit on February 5, 2006, and the Steelers clinging desperately to a 14-10 lead, early in the fourth quarter. Seattle had the football, facing a third and 18 from the Steelers 27 yard line. There were still over 10-minutes remaining, and if the Seahawks could even convert a field goal on the drive, it would make for a very nerve-wracking finish. However, on a pass from Matt Hasselback that was intended for Darrell Jackson, Taylor made a picture-perfect interception at the five-yard line and returned it 19 yards with another 15 on an illegal block by Hasselbeck added-on for good measure. Four plays later, Antwaan Randle El found Ward on a 43-yard touchdown pass on a receiver option play, and the rest was history, in a 21-10 Steelers victory (their first championship in 26 years).
In his book, Dan Rooney: My 75 Years With the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL, Dan Rooney discusses three key plays in Super Bowl XL that led to Pittsburgh's first Lombardi trophy since the 1970s. As I began reading this paragraph, I naturally assumed the chairman would discuss Roethlisberger's scramble and pass on 3rd and 28 that led to Pittsburgh's first score; Willie Parker's 75-yard touchdown run early in the second half; and Randle El's throw. But while he did mention Parker's scamper and Randle El's option pass, Mr. Rooney included Taylor's pick as the other key play of that Super Bowl.
Ike Taylor may not have been the perfect defensive back, but he spent many years as the top corner on a defense that finished first overall numerous times. He started three Super Bowls and now owns two rings.
Ike Taylor's hands may have been made of stone in the regular season, but in January and February--when it really counted the most--his hands proved to be made of gold, and they helped bring home a lot of silver.