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Up Close and Personal with the Steelers' Secondary Coach, Carnell Lake

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I suppose that, strictly speaking, it wasn't that personal, but I was up close for sure, since I sat on the front row. That would be the front row in the Steelers' team meeting room, where the guys convene every day. Quite a thought!

Since I didn't know anything about Carnell Lake's career I looked up the information. He was drafted in 1989 by the Steelers, in the second round. They took him with Pick #34. Their first round pick that year was #7. (That would be Tim Worley, RB.)

Wow. I was surprised that the Steelers were picking that high. But it turned out that the 1988 season was the nadir for the Steelers, at least since they had become contenders in the early 1970s—the team finished 5-11. To continue with the theme from maryrose's fantastic post, since that time the Steelers have only had two seasons in which they lost ten games, and have never again matched 1988's disappointing total. In fact, the Steelers have only had four losing seasons since that year.

It's worth looking at those numbers quickly, just to remind ourselves how blessed we are. Since 1988 the Steelers have had the following winning records (17 of the 22 seasons since 1989):

15-1 (2004)

13-3 (2001)

12-4 (1994, 2008, 2010)

11-5 (1992, 1995, 1997, 2005)

10-6 (1996 and 2007)

10-5-1 (2002)

9-7 (1989, 1990, 1993, 2000, and 2009)

They had one 8-8 season (2006.)

Here are the losing seasons:

7-9 (1991, 1998) (The Seahawks went to the playoffs last year with a 7-9 record. Not happening in our division, of course...)

6-10 (1999, 2003)

The last time they had a truly embarrassing season was 1969 (1-13.) I'm guessing that at least half of the readers on the site weren't born then. It's easy to complain, but let's remember just what a great run the Steelers have given their fans over the years, and just how spoiled we are!

But back to Carnell Lake. He had an interesting journey through the defense. At UCLA he played OLB. He was drafted by the Steelers as a strong safety, but was eventually moved to corner. Lake himself tells that story, so I'll pass over it now.

In his rookie year he started 15 games and led the team that year with five fumble recoveries. Lake played for the Steelers from 1989 to 1999, and then signed with Jacksonville. For the remainder of his career he moved back to safety. He spent 1999 and 2000 in Jacksonville, (2000 on IR,) than signed with Baltimore for one season.

Looking at those years, Lake was actually pretty unfortunate. His only trip to the Super Bowl with the Steelers was with one of the two teams not to win the big game. Then he signed with the Ravens the year after they won the Super Bowl. Well, hopefully he'll just be that much more motivated to get a ring—as a coach.

While he was with the Steelers, he played in five Pro Bowls. He earned first-team All-Pro acclaim in the 1997 season and second-team honors in four other seasons. His NFL stats are as follows: 819 tackles, including 25 sacks; forced 15 fumbles and recovered 17; 16 interceptions. He scored five touchdowns, three on interceptions and two on fumble returns.

After the 2001 season he retired from the NFL and went into business. Several years ago he decided to try his hand at coaching, and worked for his old program at UCLA. The Steelers persuaded him to come to Pittsburgh this season, and that's how I came to have the privilege of hearing him speak.

He began the program by noting that when he played for the Steelers Dick LeBeau was his position coach and Ron Woodson lined up across from him. He said that he picked up a great deal from both of them. He seems to be quite happy to be coaching under his old mentor.

He then showed us the DB depth chart and introduced the players. Here are his comments about them:


William Gay: "Last year he was a backup. This year he earned a starting spot."

Ike Taylor: "Ike is having one of his best years. I believe he is playing at a pro bowl level."

Keenan Lewis: "I have a soft spot for Keenan. Keenan was a 3rd round pick three years ago, but never really played much. When I came on board he was like a little sad puppy.

He came to me in July and said 'I'm glad you're here, Coach; whatever I can do, I want to help, and if you have any extra time can you work with me?' And so we started working together after practice. The guys already had double practices on those days, and yet he still wanted to do more. This made me feel that he might be something special.

He's big—over six feet tall. I'm six feet tall, and he's a little taller than I am. He's just as fast as the other DBs, so how come this guy's not playing? I started asking some questions, and they would say 'He's not this, he's not that.' I decided to just work with him and decide for myself whether Lewis had what it took or not. I wanted to see that he got a shot.

Keenan has been playing better every week, and last week he sealed the deal against Kansas City with the interception. I was walking past the guys saying 'good job' and so on, and Lewis grabbed me, gave me a hug, and said 'I love you, Coach!' [At this point the room erupted in a chorus of "awwwws."] That was my first great experience as a coach here."

Bryant McFadden: "We call him BMac. Bryant was a starter for several years in Pittsburgh, then spent a year as a starter in Arizona. You may recall that he started on a Super Bowl team last season. This year he's a backup. He's doing an exceptional job on Special Teams, and his attitude is fantastic. Players that have been starters for a long time but get replaced can often have a sour attitude, but BMac is a real teammate."


Lake reminded us that he was drafted by the Steelers as a safety before being moved to corner. He claims that safety isn't as glamorous as corner. He says that we have excellent safeties - "excellent tacklers, good coverage skills." He compares their job to a highway patrol—"anybody that tries to get past, they sting them with their taser. We have some serious big tasers back there!"

Ryan Clark: "He is the general of the secondary, and is the one that makes sure that everyone is lined up properly. Ryan is a coach on the field.

Ryan had been picked up by another team and cut, and he was working at LSU, but decided to give it another shot, and the Steelers picked him up."†

Troy Polamalu: Lake first told us how to properly pronounce his name—it is "pol" with a long o, like in pole. "I was here about six weeks, saying 'Pahlamalu' this and 'Pahlamalu' that, and Troy is as nice as can be, and never said a word to me. But just by coincidence my next-door neighbor in Jacksonville is Kennedy Pola. So Kennedy knocks on my door one day and says 'You know, my nephew plays for the Steelers.' 'Who's that,' says I. 'Troy Polamalu.' Hmm. So if you ever meet him on the street, he's going to be very impressed if you pronounce his name correctly.

Troy is one of the all-time great safeties. Of course he was the DPOY last season. He's just special. My only knock on Troy is that he went to USC. I was a UCLA man."

Ryan Mundy: "Ryan is a home-town boy—he and his family are from right here in Pittsburgh. He went to school in West Virginia.

Ryan is probably good enough to start on most teams, but because he is behind Troy Polamalu he's not a starter. He did a great job last week (Kansas City) backing Troy up."

Will Allen: "He's another great player. He backs up Ryan Clark. He has corner-like' abilities*, and he really can run. It's unfortunate for him that he's on this team, because he could also probably be a starter on some other team."

The Rookies:

Lake told us that on other teams the coaches don't necessarily get much, if any, input into who is drafted. "I know a lot of coaches in Green Bay. They just coach—they don't have any input in who comes in to play. You get what you get. Somebody else—the office, the scouting department, those are the people that do all the work to find the talent. Fortunately I was able to throw my two cents in, and together with the other coaches and the scouting department we chose two rookies this year. We got got very lucky."

Curtis Brown: "Curtis as a rookie is leading our Special Teams in tackles.* He came in and got right after it. He's quick as a cat. He's a special guy. It's amazing that he's even in the league right now."

He talked about Brown's difficult life growing up, and said "How in the world he ever made it through high school and college to make it here is unbelievable. But that's Curtis—he's special, and he's going to go a long way." (Brown's story is interesting and involved enough that it is worthy of a separate article.)

Cortez Allen: "Cortez Allen is a product from the Citadel. He's a true talent, already getting playing time on the field with us. He did a great job against New England, helped us get a victory there. As you know they were the number one passing offense in the league when we played them, and he was a big part of that. Very fast, very tall, he's very mature for his age."

Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith: "He is a safety who we think has a lot of potential. We were able to retain him on the practice squad—he's not on the active squad. We think he has a bright future with us."

Lake then showed pictures of his sons, aged 12 and 11, and said they are his harshest critics. "No one is ever satisfied, but these two guys are NEVER satisfied." A sample post-game critique:

"Well, dad, how come you lost the game? [Said in a high, aggrieved voice. These guys would fit right in at BTSC.] We should have been in Cover 2 instead of Man. What was going on with that?!!"

At this point he got into the specifics of coaching and broke down some film with us. This article is already long enough, though, so the rest of it will be a separate post in a day or so.

At the end Lake left just enough space for a couple of questions, and I'll put them here, as they fit better with this part of his presentation. Here they are:

Question 1 (In the interests of full disclosure, I was the one that asked it:)

Were you specifically charged with changing the secondary style to a more aggressive one, or was that your suggestion to the coaching staff after looking at the film?

Lake: "Because we didn't have off-season workouts or training and coaching sessions with the guys, I couldn't do anything but watch film. I watched a lot of film. I figured out that we could do certain things better. Some things they were already doing well. I wanted to find people to put on the field that would be more aggressive. Sometimes if you are too aggressive you get burned. But I figured that if I could teach them the correctly and make the correct changes we would have some success. Hopefully it is paying off. I think so."

Question 2:

How do you determine during the 30 seconds before the play whether they are going to run or pass? What signals do you get from the offense that tells you what they are going to do?

Lake: "There are so many little tidbits that you can pick up from an offense that I used when I played, and now when I'm coaching, to determine whether it is a run or a pass. It's the silliest little things sometimes. I used to try to look in the huddle to see what they were talking about. I can't hear anything, obviously, but what I could get was a visual signal. If I saw a quarterback having an intense conversation with a receiver, something's up, right? Or, a lot of quarterbacks like to get a good grip on the football [when they throw it,] so in order to get a good grip they will always lick their fingers. So if I saw him back there in the huddle licking his fingers, I knew, hey, this might be a pass play. It's things as little as that. Or when they bring certain personnel into the huddle, if they bring in an extra two receivers in, it's probably going to be a pass."

Question 3:

I love William Gay. What details have you been on with him that he has so dramatically improved this year?

"Part of it is in response to the first question. It was just teaching him to be a little more aggressive. It's one thing to say 'you need to be more aggressive,' but how do you do that? We've been working on those things to get him in a position where he can make plays. He's not a big guy, but he can play aggressively and still use his size to help him make plays. So far it's working.

A big part of coaching a cornerback is giving them confidence in themselves that they can play. I was a strong safety my first six years under Bill Cowher. Ron Woodson went down, and I figured that they were going to put the other corner in, right? No.

Coach LeBeau said 'Carnell, you're in.' 'What? I've never played corner in my life. What are you talking about?'

That first game was against the Cincinnati Bengals, and they had an all-Pro receiver, Carl Pickens, on that team. Carl was running me up and down that field. I was sitting on the bench after the second quarter thinking 'I can't do this. What were they thinking about?' Bill Cowher came up to me and said 'Carnell, you have to have a short memory. Whatever you did in the past doesn't matter. Go out there and do something the next play.'

And you know what? Just that little statement let me say 'It's true—it can't get any worse than it is right now.' So that's what I've tried to pass on to Will."

To be continued...

† The full story on Ryan Clark, for those who, like me, didn't know it, is that he was undrafted, picked up by the Giants, played for them for two years, was cut, and signed with the Redskins. He played there for two years and was cut again. He signed with the Steelers in 2006, replacing Chris Hope.

* I wonder if that is anything like 'concussion-like symptoms?'

** Brown has 12 tackles and 2 forced fumbles. Other Special Teams players' stats:

Cortez Allen: 12 tackles (He has also gotten some time with the defense, so I don't know how you break these down)

BMac: 9 tackles, 2 FF (I believe that 2 of those were in Game 1 when he started at corner.)

Stevenson Sylvester: 6 tackles, 2 FF

Chris Carter: 3 tackles