Steelers' Nickelback Derby Rocking

With Ike Taylor down, Mike Tomlin has moved William Gay up and one of the following in as the nickel:

PITTSBURGH -- When Ike Taylor went down with a broken forearm last Sunday night against the Carolina Panthers, his boys gathered around to tell Ike how badly they felt for him.

But ...

"Ike don't want nobody crying over him or being sorry and forget about the game," said William Gay. "He gave us that look like, 'Y'all go win this game. I broke my arm for y'all.'"

The Steelers did win that game, courtesy of players such as Gay, who replaced Taylor in the base Okie defense, and Antwon Blake, who entered the game as the nickelback.

Gay may well be the team's best cornerback. And Blake played well in Carolina. He broke up one deep pass to Kelvin Benjamin, and was in even better position late in the game when Benjamin reeled in a Derek Anderson deep ball for a touchdown. Taylor will miss at least the next two months of action. Mike Tomlin said that while Gay will move up into the starting lineup, the coach hasn't settled on Blake as the new nickelback.

"We have some viable guys," Tomlin said Tuesday. "It happened to be Antwon Blake in the game because he was next up in the game, but we are not discounting what (Brice) McCain is capable of. We’re not discounting what B.W. Webb is capable of. That’s why we acquired him. We’ll let those guys sort themselves out on the practice field as we prepare."

Tomlin began his look-see yesterday at the following candidates:

Antwon Blake -- Gay called him "one of the quickest corners that we have," and according to Blake his 40 time ranks right up there with Dri Archer's. Blake said he ran a 4.18 at his pro day coming out of college in 2012.

Two-and-a-half years later is he still that fast?

"I feel like I am," said the 5-9 1/4 Blake. "We'll see how it goes around Week 16 when your body starts to slow down, but right now I'm still feeling good."

Blake started 25 games and intercepted two passes in college at UTEP and signed with Jacksonville as an undrafted free agent in 2012. As a rookie he was second on the team in special-teams tackles, but was released and signed by the Steelers in September of 2013. Blake also finished second on the the Steelers in special-teams tackles and as a gunner has become a core special-teams player.

Is that how his career will be stamped, as a special-teamer?

"I don't believe so," Blake said. "Right now I still am. When I start making plays on defense then we can start talking about that."

Blake broke up the one pass in his 17 snaps at Carolina. Last season he played in only five defensive snaps and broke up a pass to help the Steelers beat the Detroit Lions.

Those five snaps -- in which the coaches judged him to be in proper position each time -- helped Blake get the pole position in this derby.

"I'm very excited," he said of the opportunity. "But you know you can't let the moment get too big."

Brice McCain -- Another of the speedy newcomers to Tomlin's "track team" this season, McCain spent the last five seasons with the Houston Texans before signing a one-year contract with the Steelers last April 1. McCain started four games last season and intercepted a pass among his seven pass-defenses. For his career, McCain has 10 starts and four picks after coming out of Utah with a 4.33 40 time.

"I was a 4.2 a couple years ago," said McCain. "But the important thing is that I have the system down now and am moving pretty well, whatever that time might be now."

McCain said he "was consistent" early in camp, and then the 5-8 7/8 corner began flashing his speed late in camp as his understanding of the system grew. But a groin injury in the preseason finale cost him playing time in the opener, and perhaps a shot at the nickelback pole position.

"But I'm feeling great now," McCain said. "I'm feeling real good about my ability and my body."

McCain didn't take part in any defensive snaps at Carolina but has the experience and the speed to provide a serious challenge to Blake.

"When it's my time to go, it's my time to go," McCain said. "I'll do anything the team wants me to do. I'm down for whatever."

B.W. Webb -- At 5-10 1/4, Webb is the tallest of the three contenders, but at 4.46 at the 2013 combine he's a step slower than Blake and McCain.

Webb was a fourth-round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys last season, and played in 15 games. But he was cut at the end of camp this season and the Steelers claimed him on Aug. 28. The coaching staff wanted to get a long look at him without assessing him in relationship to the mess that was Dallas' defense last season.

"It was definitely a situation, man," said Webb. "There was a new coordinator in there, so -- we were just kind of running around, to be honest."

Webb was injured in the second preseason game this year and the Cowboys had no time for his recovery. But he's well now, and said he understands the Steelers' playbook.

"It's not that tough at all," he said with a big grin. "I went through a lot worse at William & Mary."

Webb, of course, was kidding. He graduated with a Kineseology and Health Sciences degree from Tomlin's alma mater.

"I am catching on real well," Webb added. "Everybody here is very helpful in many ways, inside and outside of the facility. It's turning out real well for me."

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