Replacement DBs Flourishing

Ike Taylor has enjoyed watching the replacement DBs play down the stretch through an unbeaten December. He's not advising any changes.

PITTSBURGH -- A couple of weeks ago, after he possibly read the writing on his career wall, Ike Taylor talked about his wish to go into scouting.

After all, he was 34, injured, and in the two games following an 8-game absence with a broken forarem Taylor was scorched for long touchdown passes by Kenny Stills and A.J. Green.

In fact Green, against whom Taylor had celebrated personal victories in past one-on-one encounters, shredded mostly Taylor for 224 yards.

Since that game, Taylor has been sidelined with two or three "nicks" and was again inactive Sunday night as the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Cincinnati Bengals, 27-17.

Taylor and fellow two-time champion and revered elder statesman Troy Polamalu watched replacements Brice McCain, Will Allen and nickel back Antwon Blake help hold Green to a mere 82 yards receiving.

"Man," Taylor started, "you give opportunities to guys who are hungry, young guys who don't understand what a playoff atmosphere is but who are now getting to grow and understand, it's like a plant growing in the summertime. Put the right fertilizer on it, let them get the right sunshine, water 'em down whenever you need to, and watch 'em grow. That's how those guys are playing."

Perceptive. And that's why Taylor will make a good scout some day. But he was asked to change hats. He was asked to put on the hat of the head coach. He was asked what he would do with replacements who've been playing so well in veteran absence as the veterans work their way back to full health.

"I tell people all the time playing corner is like playing quarterback: You get in a rhythm," Taylor said. "Now I'm not going to knock that rhythm off of corners who are in the rhythm. So my issue being: Do I come back too early or do I keep my guys in the rhythm?

"Just watching these young guys take the challenge and grow, and watching the veteran leadership, they know I've got their back. They know I'm not worried about playing time. They know I'm not worried about coming back. Anything they need, they got from big brother Ike. So they transfer that onto the field, and what helps that is they don't have to look over their shoulder. You can play cornerback just playing comfortable and knowing a 12-year veteran ain't breathing down your neck because he wants to play and everything is good and he's got your back 100 percent. That counts as everything a coach or anybody else has to say. That's the kind of atmosphere I want. And they're reaping. They're reaping."

So are the Steelers. It's a team that's coming together in all aspects, and lately that final aspect, the secondary, has been rounding into form and the Steelers have the look of a legitimate contender.

McCain? He intercepted two passes Sunday that were intended for Green. One bounced off Green's outstretched hands; the other was a stop-and-go in which Green stopped and McCain kept going to intercept a pass inside the Pittsburgh 5-yard line.

McCain Island?

"No," McCain said with immediate disapproval. "It's a team game. AJ Green's a great receiver, hands down. I just stayed on top of him. Quarterback got impatient, threw the ball quick, and I picked the ball off. I should've had three but I had two."

McCain was asked how the Steelers were able to shut Green down this time as opposed to the last time.

"No balls over our head," he said. "The other game we played he had balls over our head. We lose games when you give up more than one deep ball. So we focused on that, no deep balls. ... We're going to force them to check the ball down. If they don't check it down and get greedy, we're going to pick him off, like today."

Obviously, teams learn from their mistakes. But they also learn when they have players who are playing well and veterans who are not. And it takes a special veteran, like Taylor, and presumably like Polamalu, who won't stand in the way of transition and growth. It's known as the character of a champion.

"I got it from Deshea Townsend and Willie Williams," said Taylor. "If I didn't have those two guys, maybe the situation might be different. Willie Williams pulled his hamstring and he was like, 'It's yours. I watched you breathe down my neck from training camp and preseason, and now I'm hurt so don't look back.' At the time you're just thinking a veteran is just talking, but now I'm actually going through it. And seeing these guys develop over time, we're talking about 56th guy on the depth chart, we're talking about signing a free agent from Houston (McCain), we're talking about getting a special teams guy from Jacksonville (Blake). And yet everybody was saying, 'Who we drafting?'"

On draft day, as fans and media groused about the team not drafting a cornerback until the fifth round, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said "We may have great players in the building already; they just haven't had the chance to show us that they are great."

Perhaps McCain and Blake and veteran safety Will Allen aren't "great," but don't tell that to the coaching staff. For a defense that's broken ignominious team records for net passing yards allowed, gross passing yards allowed, completion percentage allowed, and just crushed the team passer rating allowed -- 98.3 this year; previous record 83.5 in 2009 -- the replacement players are at least a much-needed tourniquet.

After Green had torched Taylor and the Steelers in Game 13, the Steelers were allowing a passer rating of 100.9. In the last three games it's been 89.5. Allen said that in the absence of the veterans, "we're just trying to hold the secondary together," but they've done more than that.

So, should these replacements continue playing into the playoffs?

Taylor, scout AND coach, knows the answer, at least at his position.

"Put your pride aside," he said. "I've been saying that since I've been here. Being a Pittsburgh Steeler, at some point in time you've got to put your pride aside. Don't know when, but you've got to. And I put my pride aside to watch young guys grow. Just the whole secondary situation: I'm out, Troy's out, Cortez (Allen) is out, (Will) Gay got snubbed for the Pro Bowl, you never thought of McCain, and Blake's making big plays. This situation is crazy.

"Everybody like, 'Man, you mad?' For what? I understand. I'm hard on myself. I'll criticize myself. But now I get to see young guys grow and have the opportunity to do it, and I want them to get Super Bowls and I want them to get their money. That's what I'm doing. Me and Coach T were talking. He said, 'Man, you see these boys developing right in front of our eyes?' I said 'Yeah.'

"The tunnel was kind of dark five weeks ago. Coach T kept telling us teams that win Super Bowls, they don't lose in December. Now, it's a game of inches, a play here, a play there, but secondary-wise, this is about the best secondary play we've had in years, probably in that 08, 09 era. Today was one of those days."

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