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Carnell Lake Gets Personal with the Steelers' Secondary

This is the third and final post about my experiences at the Dean's Dairy Woman's 202 Steelers Event that I attended on December 2nd. [The first installment can be found here, the second here.] In this final installment you get to hear what Carnell Lake had to say about some of the plays from the Kansas City game when he broke down the film with us. I found it absolutely fascinating.

But first he talked about his coaching philosophy. It was pretty simple. He told us what he asks the guys to bring to the table:

1. Be Prepared

2. Give Good Effort

3. Have a Great Attitude

Here's what he tells them he can help them with:

1. Assignment (knowing what you are supposed to do)

2. Alignment (knowing where you are supposed to be)

3. Technique (knowing how to defend the area or person you are charged with defending)

There is nothing revolutionary about any of this. He is telling them that there are things he can teach them if they are willing to learn. But the initial desire and work has to come from them.

So what has made the big difference? Perhaps Carnell Lake is a genius at teaching. Perhaps William Gay, Keenan Lewis, and the young'uns just happened to be poised to jump to the next level. Or perhaps it is a phenomenon that one often sees in teaching and, I assume, coaching— someone saying the same things, but in a sufficiently different way, helps the message to get through more effectively. That probably accounts for a lot of the improvement. But having said that, I suspect that Lake is an excellent teacher. The fact that he cares enough to take the extra time to work with Keenan Lewis or to help William Gay to be more confident (see the previous article) speaks volumes about him as a coach.

And I got something of a confirmation of this when listening to today's Steelers Live at 4. The trivia question for the day was "What was the last time the Steelers lost at home on Thursday night?" The answer was to the Bengals, in October of 1995. That was Carnell Lake's first game at cornerback. Lake told us the story of that game, which I related in the previous post. [Note: Hombre de Acero sent me an email saying that this was in fact not Lake's first game, but that the following week's game at Jacksonville was his first. A newspaper clipping that confirms this was, funnily enough, written by Mike Prisuta. It's interesting how our minds work, or don't, sometimes—Lake, Prisuta, and Tunch Ilkin all believe that he started in the Cincinnati game. Thanks for putting BTSC straight, anyhow, Hombre!]

This started Tunch and Mike Prisuta talking about what a good coach Lake is, and they said two things that particularly struck me. The first was they mentioned that he is very good in working with different guys in different ways, according to their personality and needs. The other was a comment about talking to William Gay after his first interception. Mike Prisuta said that previously when you talked to Gay about something he did well, he would basically say "I'm just doing what Coach LeBeau says." This time, he said "I'm just doing what Coach Lake says." That says a lot about what respect the guys have for Lake in this short amount of time.

Carnell Lake told us that what he actually does most of the time is watch film and make Powerpoint slides. For example, when preparing for the Kansas City game he broke down every offensive player on the Chiefs, looking for tendencies and quirks that would help the DBs to understand what they were likely to do.

He began with Tyler Palko. He's left-handed, which is a bit harder to defend. He has good mobility, a fast release, likes to pump fake, uses play-action, and so on. He will perhaps have some snippets of film showing examples of these things and how they look.

He then continues through the offense. For example, he showed us the film of one of the receivers who is good at putting a little Z move on the defender to break free, and explained that it generally happened about 10 yards down the field.

He said "In the National Football League you can't be just fast, or you can't be just quick, or you can't be just strong. Things happen so fast that you need an edge. The edge is here—this kind of information. Now the DBs have a chance. They know that if this guy starts to do a little move about 10 yards out, not to be too aggressive in biting on it, or else the receiver might get behind him."

He went on to say that he diagrams to sort of routes that the opposing team likes to run, and what implications each one has for each defender, depending on the package they put on the field. He showed us a diagram of the dime package and where the nickel corner would go on a particular route that Kansas City might run. "And that's only one play. We have a thick book [full of plays.] These guys are on it—they have to know their stuff."

He then gave us an example of a player who didn't. He was drafted by the Steelers the same year that Lake was, as a free safety. After the first practice of training camp Lake suggested to this guy that they meet to study the playbook. The other guy agreed, suggesting that they meet after dinner in the pool room and use the billiard balls to map out the plays. But, as Lake said, "Nico liked the ladies." Lake went to the pool table and waited and waited. Finally, Nico showed up, with a newly acquired girlfriend. He was cut at the end of that week.

After giving an assessment of how he felt the secondary was doing at that point in the season, Lake went on to break down some film with us. I was pretty excited about this. After all, when something goes badly, inquiring minds want to know who is at fault. Was it poor play-calling, poor execution, or just one of those things?

If it is an offensive play, it's simple—the presumption among many around here seems to be that it is Bruce Arian's fault. [I will just say that I don't agree with that approach.] When it is a defensive play, the blame assessment seems to be more difficult. First there is the fact checking—is there any possible way it can be blamed on [William Gay's supposed ineptitude, James Farrior's alleged age and slowness, or insert current BTSC goat of the week.] Here and there a voice cries in the wilderness that Dick LeBeau is clearly past it, but the crushing weight of evidence and/or opinions to the contrary ensures that this viewpoint is shouted down quickly. And I for one am glad. Is Dick LeBeau perfect? Well, he's human, which answers that question, but he is a legend who seems to keep adding to the story.

So you can imagine my excitement when I realized that Carnell Lake was going to provide us with actual information on specific plays. So that you can see more or less what we saw, I'm providing stills from some of the examples he gave. The following are some hand-selected plays.

First, an example of a play that worked, and who was responsible for it:


The play was 1st and 10 at the KC 43 yard line, 13:28 in the 1st quarter. The Chiefs came right out in no huddle and ran twice for a first down, ran once and threw for another, and then lined up to run. Troy was tired of first downs, so he lined up next to Jason Worilds' spot. (Worilds just barely got into position when the ball was snapped, because Palko was lining them up so fast.) Troy is engaged with a blocker, as you can see in this shot, and manages to get one arm free and take down Jackie Battle with it, who was held to a one yard gain.

Lake commented "The strong safety really does have to be strong, because he has to take on some heavyweight people and still be able to make the tackle." He went on to say "It's a rough day for Troy when the game's over. That guy is all over the place."

When Lake first introduced his players to us, he said that some of them didn't need any coaching—"they are just that good." Obviously our DPOY from last season is one of those, and although he gets fooled sometimes, this was an example of Troy reading the play and blowing it up, despite the best efforts of the opposition.

The next example is "not using the techniques that we want to use when we're covering. This is how fast it happens when you're off just a little bit in your technique."


This play came just about a minute after the play above. Lake explained that this is a problem of 'alignment.' Ike "mentally slipped on this play and let the guy inside, and just that quick, BANG, they got 20 yards." Ike bit on a little move that Steve Breaston made, and actually he got 25 yards. Bummer.

He next showed Polamalu getting knocked out, and explained that the problem there was that Troy had to take the guy down, but he outweighed him by a good 100 pounds. Lake didn't have any suggestions about what Troy could have done differently—maybe there isn't anything. In the New England game he jumped on Rob Gronkowski and ended up going for a piggyback ride for about 10 more yards, IIRC.

Next was the Taylor interception. After explaining that corners are all frustrated receivers, he said that they do a lot of catching drills, the same sort as the receivers do, so that when the ball does come their way they can catch it. And lo and behold, Ike did.

He also showed us the Ryan Mundy interception, which he called "taking a gift when they give it to us." (Ironically, the sportcasters had just been talking about Palko's mistakes thus far in the game, and said "you can't give the ball away." Palko must have misheard, because he threw it directly to Mundy. Lake then said that he gives the front seven credit, because without the pressure they were getting that flushed Palko out of the pocket that play doesn't happen.


Harrison was at the point you see him well under two seconds after the snap. Keisel was next to him immediately after he threw. That would put anybody off...

The next play he showed was what he called "bumper cars." Lake explained that "as Coach LeBeau says, if you don't use your two biggest weapons, which are your arms, when you make a tackle, it will be just like bumper cars out there. You'll bump right into them and they'll just keep going." He then showed the play where Ryan Clark bumped the guy, and the guy just kept going and picked up another five or ten yards before he was stopped. Lake said "these are the sorts of things we work on in practice. Nine times out of ten Ryan is going to get the guy on the ground."

He showed two examples of the DB correctly reading a route and making a play on the ball. In the first example, Ryan Mundy stopped the receiver and knocked the ball out; in the second Ike Taylor got in front of the receiver and batted the ball down. He then showed the play where William Gay jumped just a split second too soon and couldn't make the play. He had correctly diagnosed the route and was in position—his timing was just a split second off.

Then he gave us an example of a play that could have hurt a lot. It was the 4th quarter, 13:22, the score was 13 to 6, and "we have to make a stop." The Chiefs were backed up by a good punt to the 8-yard line. Duane Bowe caught a very short pass and made it to the 1st down marker before being pushed out of bounds, or so they thought. But the DBs charged with that didn't actually push him all the way out and he got another eight yards. It was fortunate that he didn't make it to the end zone—Ike was the last defender alive.

On the next play they redeemed themselves—when the back took the handoff all eleven guys converged to take him down for a one-yard gain. "What you want to see from a great defense is effort from everyone. Great job there."

Now it is 13-9, as the Chiefs scored a field goal on the previous drive, and once again the Chiefs have the ball. It is the last four minutes of the game. The Chiefs are moving downfield at a glacial pace, clearly not wanting to leave any time for a patented Roethlisberger comeback. A touchdown will win the game.

Lake said "I'm not on the field. I'm up in the box, and I'm sweating bullets. You don't want to know what I'm saying. As corners we know that guys are going to catch balls—you can't always help that, it's just part of playing the game. What we really don't want is for them to get yards after the catch. Our coverage needs to be right now, as soon as he catches it." Jon Baldwin converted a 3rd and 4 on a short screen, but Taylor stopped it immediately and kept him in bounds.

After a four yard run just before the 2 minute warning, Palko gears up to throw on 2nd and 6, and sends it deep right to Steve Breaston. Keenan Lewis was on Breaston, and although he caught a back-shoulder fade Lewis knocked the ball enough that he didn't have possession before he ran out of bounds.

So now it is 3rd and 6. Palko throws another screen to Duane Bowe, but William Gay is in the backfield to take him down for a one yard loss. Of course, the Chiefs have no option but to go for it. Even if they were in field goal range (which they weren't, being on the wrong side of mid-field,) a field goal does them no good. So they line up for 4th and 7. A stop here means a Steelers victory. And what happens? (Many of us commented at this point that reliving this was almost as bad as watching it the first time. Lake said "I know, I'm there too!") Palko hurries the guys to the line to force the same coverage. Keenan Lewis takes just a little bit too long to cover his man, and isn't quite in the right place, and isn't looking in the right place. Lake is in the booth, saying "Keenan, what are you doing???!!!" only not as politely as that. Here's the picture right before the snap:


The Chiefs convert, because Lewis was a step late. Two plays later, Harrison got to Palko almost immediately, but Palko managed to flip the ball away. The receiver was Ryan Mundy's guy, and he missed. Brett Keisel saved his bacon by making the stop. (Lake was seriously impressed with Keisel's speed and effort.) But now it's 3rd and 4 on the PIT 46 yard line. Somebody bit on a little move by Breaston (Lake didn't say who, and I couldn't see the backfield on the film.) Once again they converted, and it is now 1st and 10 on the PIT 32. A false start penalty moved the Chiefs back to the 37 yard line with 38 seconds left in the game, and then comes this:


And that, friends, is the sweet smell of redemption. Keenan Lewis reads the play, grabs the ball, game over.