Ike Taylor's skin — the figurative kind — has grown thick over a decade developing a reputation as one of the NFL's better cover guys.
The veteran Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback is relying on that mental toughness to get him through the most difficult stretch of his career.
Following a brutal night in which the most experienced member of Pittsburgh's secondary was beaten relentlessly in a stunning 26-23 loss to Tennessee last week — surrendering the game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter chief among his missteps — Taylor understands teams no longer fear throwing his way.
"They're going to try me," Taylor said. "Why wouldn't you? I've got 10 years of tape. I know going into the game that's going to happen."
Only it seems to be happening with more regularity for Taylor. Typically charged with covering an opponent's No. 1 receiver, Taylor has found himself on the wrong end of pass completions in critical situations through the season's first month for the Steelers (2-3), who play at Cincinnati (3-3) on Sunday night.
Even Taylor allows his performance isn't quite up to the level. Then again, neither is the rest of the defense for a team that hasn't gotten off to its usual fast start under coach Mike Tomlin.
Pittsburgh is fifth in the league in yards allowed and fifth against the pass. Good numbers, yes, but it's the ones on the scoreboard at the end of games that are causing some early season angst.
The Steelers are allowing 23 points a game — more than a touchdown than the 14.2 they surrendered a year ago — and opponents have already thrown for nine scores, putting Pittsburgh on pace to give up the most passing touchdowns in team history.
"It's all correctable," Taylor said.
It's a refrain the team has issued repeatedly since a season-opening 31-19 loss at Denver, when Peyton Manning engineered a second-half comeback in his first game in more than a year. It resurfaced two weeks later when Carson Palmer and the Oakland Raiders put up 34 points to cap another late rally.
And it's back yet again after the Titans rolled up 113 yards and 10 points on its final two possessions, including a 4-yard pass from Matt Hasselbeck to Kenny Britt in which Taylor couldn't close in time to knock the ball out of Britt's hands.
It was the final gash in one of the roughest games of Taylor's otherwise solid career. He was flagged for pass interference twice and defensive holding once in addition to grasping at air rather than a receiver in critical situations.
His teammates have rallied to Taylor's defense while at the same time insisting the last thing he needs is a pep talk.
"There were tons of plays that a lot of us didn't make," safety Ryan Clark said. "What you don't do is create a problem. You don't start to panic and try to give him all these solutions and 'Oh, I'm in your corner and I want to help you.' This is not a situation to where he is putting the team in position to lose."
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau believes there is plenty of heat to go around. The Steelers aren't putting much pressure on the quarterback — they're averaging a so-so 2.2 sacks per game — and have spent the first portion of the year dealing with injuries to safety Troy Polamalu and linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley among others.
Given time to work, Manning, Palmer and Hasselbeck were all able to play like guys in the middle of their prime, not ones well on the other side of their careers.
"It's not the line, it's not the linebacker, it's not the defensive backs and it's not the defensive plays that are called, but it's a combination thereof," LeBeau said. "All these players are one-play games and we have to be the ones that make the play at the end of the game to make things swing our way."
It's something Taylor flourished at last fall when he put together a Pro Bowl-caliber season, one that ended with him chasing Denver's Demaryius Thomas into the end zone on the first play of overtime as the Broncos pulled off a stunning 29-23 wild card victory.
Taylor insisted all summer the play didn't haunt him, that he was over it. Still, he allows the 80-yard catch-and-run may have shown he was vulnerable.
"Every season ain't going to be the same season," Taylor said. "What I have is 11 more games left."
True, though the Steelers need to get better quickly if they want to emerge from the murky waters of the AFC. On Sunday they face one of the top quarterback-receiver combinations in the league in Andy Dalton and A.J. Green.
It will be Taylor's primary responsibility to keep the 6-foot-4 Green in check. LeBeau doesn't expect Taylor to win every battle, just enough of them.
"It's not a question of if they catch one on you here and there but when and how you respond," LeBeau said. "Ike's a veteran corner and he'll respond and he'll come out fighting."
NOTES: Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger left practice early Thursday after rolling his right ankle but said afterward he was "fine." ... Polamalu (calf), running backs Rashard Mendenhall (Achilles) and Isaac Redman (ankle), right tackle Marcus Gilbert (ankle) and linebacker Chris Carter (hamstring) did not practice ... Center Maurkice Pouncey returned to practice and is optimistic his right knee will be good enough to play ... Linebacker Lawrence Timmons also practiced on Thursday. He sat out Wednesday with a previously undisclosed foot problem.
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