PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The ball left Joe Flacco's hands and William Gay's eyes grew wide.
And not in a good way.
Flacco's pass early in the third quarter last Sunday was heading for Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Jacoby Jones, who just so happened to be the man Gay was supposed to be covering. One problem. Jones was long gone and the Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback knew it.
When asked if Jones' advantage was maybe a half-step, Gay shook his head and held up his right hand as if to say, ''Stop.''
''Come on now,'' Gay said. ''I was beat.''
That is, until the ball arrived. When Flacco's heave floated down into Jones' outstretched hands, Gay reached out and swatted it away. The well-timed deflection preserved Pittsburgh's lead in an eventual 19-16 victory. It also underlined Gay's importance for a secondary that is starting to look like its usual self.
Back with the Steelers after spending an ill-fated year with the Arizona Cardinals, Gay has blossomed from insurance policy to nearly indispensable starter. His sure tackling and unshakable confidence are among the reasons Pittsburgh (2-4) believes it can somehow rally from its horrific September.
''This is a long football season, 16 games, and we finished the first quarter 0-4,'' Gay said. ''Now, we've moved on into the second quarter, and we're 2-0 in the second quarter.''
And the Steelers have done it by shutting down the high-flying (if erratic) New York Jets and bottling the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens. Pittsburgh enters Sunday's game in Oakland (2-4) fourth in the NFL in pass defense while allowing a league-low five touchdowns through the air.
Not bad for a secondary that lost Keenan Lewis and his AFC-leading 23 pass deflections in 2012 to New Orleans in free agency. The Steelers planned on moving Cortez Allen to Lewis' spot, but Allen underwent minor knee surgery shortly after training camp began and has struggled to stay healthy.
Enter Gay, who thrived as a nickelback in Pittsburgh from 2007-11 before signing with the Cardinals after Arizona made him an offer - not to mention a pay raise - he couldn't refuse.
It didn't work out. Though Gay collected two interceptions and helped the Cardinals finish fifth in yards passing allowed, the team plummeted from a 4-0 start, finishing 5-11. Coach Ken Whisenhunt was fired, and Gay suddenly found himself out of work when Arizona cut him even though Gay had one season remaining on his contract.
Though getting released hurt, Gay wasn't exactly surprised.
''If Arizona went 11-5, 12-4 last year, I probably wouldn't be sitting here talking about the Steelers,'' Gay said. ''That's the way the business is.''
Gay's job hunt didn't last long. The Steelers have a long track record of welcoming back wayward sons with open arms. They needed a veteran backup in the secondary and didn't want to waste time bringing a newcomer up to speed.
''William definitely fit us,'' defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said.
Even if the initial fit called for Gay to be an insurance policy if Allen faltered. That was fine by Gay, who conceded his family kept its allegiance with the Steelers during his unsuccessful trip west.
He returned to Pittsburgh hungry but hardly humbled. Confidence has never been an issue for Gay, whose nickname ''Big Play Willie Gay'' is practically self-anointed. As Allen's rehab dragged on, Gay leapt at the chance to work across the field from Ike Taylor.
Though the Steelers aren't exactly ballhawks, it's not an important part of the job description in Pittsburgh, where the premium is on getting opponents to the ground. That's hardly a problem for Gay, who plays bigger than his 5-foot-10, 183-pound frame.
''Everybody is starting to see what tackling means as a cornerback, and Gay has always been a solid tackler,'' Taylor said.
Taylor pointed out a key third down on which Gay tackled Ray Rice to force the Ravens to settle for a field goal. It wasn't a flashy play by any means. That didn't make it an unimportant one.
''If you were to sit down and watch tape, it's a bigger play than the plays that these corners (on other teams) are making,'' Taylor said.
Gay allows he might not be the most gifted athlete in the secondary and knows he'll be attacked regularly as teams try to avoid throwing the ball at Taylor. That's fine by Gay.
''I'm just comfortable playing with a group of guys who love the game,'' he said. ''I don't care where I'm at. Put me at safety and I'll do what I do.''
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