Working for the Clampdown

The Steelers aren't known as a man-to-man, press coverage team. After Sunday's performance from left cornerback Ike Taylor, that might be about to change, says Len Pasquarelli.

Pittsburgh - Many of the myriad tattoos that adorn the body of Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor -- including the entire verse of the Lord's Prayer on his back, an homage to his beloved New Orleans across his chest, and various messages and designs up and down both arms -- have faded into his dark skin to the point where they are pretty difficult to read.

The bet here is that New England star wide receiver Wes Welker could probably decipher much of the intricate stenciling by the conclusion of Sunday's game here.

Yeah, that's how intimate Taylor and Welker spent most of the afternoon. Locked in a man-to-man battle much of the day, Taylor was usually close enough for Welker to survey and inspect the body doodlings.

There were a lot of heroes in the Pittsburgh locker room following the Steelers' 25-17 dismantling of the Patriots, a game that wasn't nearly as close as the final score. While many of them drew large media crowds to their locker stalls, Taylor quietly sat on a folding chair in front of his dressing area, alone for the most part until a few reporters, perhaps prompted by the remarks from teammates like free safety Ryan Clark or linebacker LaMarr Woodley, wandered by.

"There's a man you should be talking to," Clark said, nodding in Taylor's direction. "I know people talk about 'Revis Island' and all that stuff, but Ike does it every week, takes on the other teams' best receivers, and shuts them down. And you never hear anything about it, right? But the guy is one of the best (cornerbacks) in the league, and maybe it's time people realized that."

The Steelers' brass certainly knows all about Taylor's importance to a unit that, despite considerable criticism after the Super Bowl loss to Green Bay, now ranks at the top of the league's statistical ratings in pass defense.

In the offseason, the club was outspoken about the significance of retaining Taylor, an unrestricted free agent at the time. When the lockout ended, the Steelers signed Taylor to a new four-year, $28 million extension.

The surprise wasn't that Pittsburgh was able to keep Taylor for a relatively modest price, compared to some of the other free agent cornerback deals. It was that the market for Taylor, a ninth-year veteran who has never been to a Pro Bowl, but was a large part of the Steelers' two Super Bowl victories in his tenure with the club, was not more robust.

Then again, Taylor's loyalty to the Steelers and to defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, are so strong, he might not have left anyway.

"This is where I wanted to play and that's the man I wanted to play for," Taylor said after limiting Welker to six receptions for 39 yards, none longer than 10 yards. "That was always my goal. I'm not real big on change."

Somewhat ironic, because it was a philosophical change -- covering the explosive Pats' receivers with a man-to-man blueprint that belied Pittsburgh's characteristic zone schemes -- that was integral to Sunday's win. And it was Taylor's single-man coverage of Welker, who had been on pace to break league single-season records for receptions and receiving yards, that was the central element to LeBeau's intricate game plan.

As usual, LeBeau mixed and matched coverages cleverly.

And the Steelers played their share of the usual stuff, man underneath and zone on top, through the day. But for much of the afternoon, the Pittsburgh secondary was locked in man-to-man. And in holding New England quarterback Tom Brady to a season-low 198 yards -- after he had shredded the Steelers for 350 or more yards in each of the three previous matchups between the two -- Taylor and Welker were like conjoined twins.

"If he went outside, I went outside," the soft-spoken Taylor whispered. "If he went inside, then I went inside. It was me and him, yeah, that's how we planned it. He's a tough draw ... but I think I mostly did OK."

Taylor finished with six tackles, all solo stops, and that led the Pittsburgh defense in terms of individual tackles. Not surprisingly, the Steelers' top three tacklers in terms of solo tackles were defensive backs.

Said strong safety Troy Polamalu, who on two plays jumped on the back of Patriots' tight end Rob Gronkowski and rode him like a bronco buster:

"Part of the message (LeBeau) delivered was 'tackle the catch.' We couldn't let them add yards (after the catch). And Ike is always a good tackler. So that wasn't a big surprise."

Neither was it surprising that Taylor, 31, was credited with just one pass defensed, or that he had zero interceptions, keeping him at a goose-egg for pickoffs this season. In fact, Taylor has now gone 17 games, the equivalent of more than a full season, since his last interception.

Cursed with notably poor hands -- Taylor routinely drops four or five would-be interceptions annually, it seems -- the former Louisiana-Lafayette star has just 11 pickoffs in 99 career starts. Only once in his career has Taylor, chosen in the fourth round of the 2003 draft, managed more than two interceptions. Five times, he has had either one or zero interceptions in a year.

But his value goes way beyond getting the ball in his hands, and that was never more evident on Sunday afternoon. Sometimes because of mundane statistics, or the galaxy of stars on the Pittsburgh defense, Taylor's contributions get lost. They are never lost, though, on the people who matter most.

"Believe me, if he had all those interceptions, people would be talking more about him," said LeBeau, who for years has touted Taylor's play and regarded him as a true "shutdown" cornerback. "But that's OK. We know how good he is."

And after Sunday, others may begin to realize it, too.

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