Before there was Troy Polamalu, there was Carnell Lake.
Well, except for the hair.
For 10 seasons, the cerebral, intelligent and selfless Lake was one of the main pillars of the Steelers defense.
Coming out of UCLA in 1989, Lake joined a Pittsburgh team that had fallen out of the upper echelon of the NFL. The Steelers had not been to the playoffs since 1984 and were coming off of a 5-11 campaign in 1988. As he had 20 years earlier, Coach Chuck Noll was looking to rebuild the Steelers with tough, disciplined, and intelligent players to help turn the franchise around.
Flanked by fellow youngsters Rod Woodson and Greg Lloyd on defense, the trio proved Noll a prophet yet again. The three would later be the cornerstone to one of the most dominant defenses in NFL history in the 1990s.
Lake's start with the Steelers was rather inauspicious. Pittsburgh was drubbed 51-0 by the archrival Browns in Week 1 and lost 41-10 at Cincinnati the following week. But Lake and the rest of his teammates showed the resilience that would later become the one of the group's trademarks.
With Lake starting 15 games, the Steelers won five out of their final six games to earn a playoff game at rival Houston. While Cleveland was and still is Pittsburgh's traditional rival, a hatred had grown in the late ‘80s between the Oilers and Steelers, in particular between Noll and Houston coach Jerry Glanville (youtube "Chuck Noll vs Jerry Glanville 1987" sometime to see just how heated their rivalry was).
In an emotional contest, the Steelers prevailed in overtime, 26-23, giving Lake and his young teammates their first taste of playoff success.
Lake continued to patrol the Steelers secondary into the 90s, not missing a game and starting each one for the next three seasons. A year after pulling down a career high four interceptions in 1993, he made his first Pro Bowl in '94 as the Steelers reached the AFC Championship game.
Now considered one of the premier safeties in the game, Lake would have to learn a new position in 1995. After Woodson was lost for the season due to injury in Week One, the Steelers asked Lake to sacrifice for the good of the team and and take Woodson's place at cornerback.
Changing positions wasn't a foreign concept for Lake; he converted to safety as a rookie after starring as a linebacker with the Bruins. But that was six years earlier, and now, in the prime of his career, Lake was told to leave position where he had worked himself into a Pro Bowl player to try to fill the void left by one of the best cornerbacks of all-time.
Lake wasn't Rod Woodson. In some ways-in respect to the great Woodson- Lake was better in his own way. Armed with the knowledge of a Pro Bowl safety, Lake would neutralize receivers on the sidelines before they became menaces in the secondary. He more than held his own despite facing the best receivers on each team. Unlike Woodson-whose strength was his ability to run and jump with even the most gifted wide outs- Lake played closer to the line of scrimmage, throwing his wiry 6'1, 210 pound frame into opposing backfields.
Lake's transformation helped the Steelers overcome a 3-4 start en route to the AFC Championship in 1995. He continued to wreak havoc on the opposition in the playoffs, intercepting Jim Kelly in the Steelers 40-21 Divisional Round win over Buffalo. He also played a key role in shutting down the Cowboys offense for most of Super Bowl XXX.
His efforts didn't go unnoticed, earning a second consecutive Pro Bowl nod.
After earning his third consecutive Pro Bowl honor back at safety in '96, Lake again was moved to corner in '97 after the Steelers parted ways with Woodson. Once again, Lake dominated his position. He picked off three passes that season while leading the team in sacks with six. Lake was a one man wrecking crew when the Steelers traveled to Arizona to face the Cardinals in Week 14, sacking Jake Plummer three times in Pittsburgh's overtime victory.
The following week at home against the eventual Super Bowl champion Broncos, Lake twice threw quarterback John Elway to the turf as the Steelers prevailed 35-24. Lake's efforts in '97 helped catapult the Steelers back to the AFC Championship Game in '97 while also earning him his first All-Pro selection.
As the 90s drew to a close, the Steelers and their fans had to see too many great players become salary cap casualties. Lake was among those casualties, leaving town after a '98 season that saw him intercept four passes while starting all 16 games for the third consecutive year.
Unlike when Lake stepped up to fill Woodson's void, there was no one to come to the rescue after Lake's departure. He was just that special of an athlete and person. The void Lake left wouldn't be filled until the long haired kid from Southern California arrived in Pittsburgh in 2003.
While happy for him, it was painful to watch Lake star as a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars in '99, the team that momentarily supplanted Pittsburgh as the class of the AFC Central. Lake started all 16 games that season, earning his fifth and final Pro Bowl selection while helping the Jags reach the AFC title game.
Lake hung up his cleats for good after suiting up for the Ravens in 2001. Fittingly, his last game was in Pittsburgh in the '01 playoffs, playing alongside Woodson in Baltimore's secondary.
Watching Polamalu today is the closest thing to watching Lake 20 years ago. They possessed superior speed, fearlessness, athleticism, and unparalleled leadership qualities. To me, the biggest similarity between the two was their quiet confidence. They simply did their job to the best of their ability and let their more boisterous teammates do the talking.
Despite his quiet demeanor, Lake made his mark during his time in Pittsburgh. And like Polamalu, No. 37 will be remembered as a great Steeler for years to come.
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