Like Ike

(Originally published August 16, 2012)

Ike Taylor gingerly pressed against the swollen gash under his right eye and grimaced.

The 32-year-old Steelers cornerback wasn’t upset though. He’d recently fielded a punch while engaged in another fight with close friend and teammate Antonio Brown, their second of a training camp seemingly more ferocious than usual, and once again they’d both played it off as merely a product of their competitive personalities.

Even with the respected captains of the team stepping in to diffuse the situation, for all the speculation regarding the possible cause of their disputes during practices, neither man would offer an explanation, saying they were on good terms with each other.

A band of brothers, said Brown. Nothing personal.

Brothers get into it, said Taylor. That’s how it is.

Perhaps Taylor was being emphatic.

He’s been a rock for a vaunted and storied Pittsburgh defensive unit in this modern era of the forward pass. It’s a quarterback-friendly, pass-happy league now, creating a greater demand for defensive backs to keep pace with the influx of wide-open offenses catered toward multi-receiver sets. And few have stepped up to the challenge the way Ike Taylor has.

Now entering his 10th NFL season, Taylor climbed the ladder from special teamer to shutdown corner with little flash or frill, only hard work, determination, and solid performance. The main knock on his skill set is having hands of stone, notching only 13 interceptions in 9 years. But those looking for the splash plays miss the point. He’s a gamer. He gets assigned the opposing team’s best receiver and told to hold him in check, a task he’s completed efficiently time and again. Ask Chad Johnson for the gritty details. What Taylor lacks in splashiness and accolades, he makes up for with consistency, serving as the unheralded anchor in a secondary that includes All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu. Taylor’s posted well over 100 consecutive games-played through the 2011 season and playoffs, and hasn’t missed a game since 2004.

To be a brother, you gotta fight. For yourself. For each other.

And more recently, with the departures of the much-maligned William Gay, and oft-injured Bryant McFadden, it’s up to Taylor to not only again be an anchor but also a guiding light to the trio of young guns battling for the No. 2 spot. On a team laden with knowledgeable veterans who enjoy the process of taking the young hopefuls under their wings, it’s Taylor who will be the example to guys like Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen, and Curtis Brown. It’ll be up to him to model the Pittsburgh standard at cornerback for them.

They’re all guys like he himself once was: a big, strong, fast, extremely raw talent. They have a combined five years of mostly special teams experience and only one official start between them, yet one of them is likely going to be called upon to man the left corner spot opposite Taylor and another for the nickel slot when the 2012 season starts.

Keenan Lewis, entering his 4th year, has the most experience, including that one lonely start, and seems to have the inside track toward nabbing the starting job. But Lewis knows if he looks over his shoulder, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown, even with their limited playing time, are right there behind him ready to snatch it from his grasp. They’re all young, hungry, ready for their big break. And they’re watching the in-house veteran of their craft, observing, dissecting his every movement, his every step.

Ike Taylor knows it too. And perhaps in his own way he’s embraced it. Fire is started by friction, and maybe he got a little carried away, but to those young men watching him so closely, he sent a subtle, slightly skewed message addressed to Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen, and Curtis Brown from that vacant No. 2 spot:

To be a brother, you gotta fight. For yourself. For each other.

That’s how it is.