Steelers and Coach Lake: Feast and Famine at Defensive Back


The Steelers are heading into the season with a defensive back lineup that can be described as both loaded and empty. Carnell Lake has a lot to work with but a lot to work on too.

It’s time to discuss the state of the Steelers secondary. Just a couple years ago the Steelers had Taylor and Polamalu. But that seems so far away somehow. Regardless, time to move on and that’s exactly what the Steelers have been trying to do the past couple years.

They’ve essentially taken the strategy of building through the draft while also taking a throw everything at the wall approach with free agency. Some of those free agents popped, and half those that did signed to other teams. The Steelers have to be stingy at the moment.

The Steelers finally cut ties with Cortez Allen. Will Allen doesn’t look like he’ll be back. Antwon Blake got signed away. Boykin’s gone. Etcetera. They’ve also been adding a number of players while promoting others to more prominent rolls. The players in the secondary roughly fall into 3 groups and this will be the dynamic you will see play out with these players that compose the secondary, all in various stages of their careers.

The Sure Things – As bad as the pass defense has been over the past couple years the Steelers have had a couple bright spots emerge and it is on these two players that the Steelers are going to rebuild the secondary. The players? I’m talking about William Gay and Mike Mitchell.

William Gay has been a Steelers for most of his career, all but one year. He’s steadily improved each year and is easily the best cornerback on the team. He’s tied with Rod Woodson for most pick sixes for a Steelers player. You’ll never see him off the field. His experience is too vital on this young team.

Mike Mitchell, not unlike William Gay, started his Steelers career off a little slow and maybe got a hard time from the fanbase. He was injured his first year it turned out and improved in his second. He’s definitely an asset. He was signed as a free safety but could end up at either position, and that’s why he’s a sure thing, because he’s capable of that.

Think of these guys like Lawrence Timmons of the secondary, or the Ramon Foster even. They’re the guy who is the foundation we’re going to build on. They’ll draft players, sign players, but they need some tent polls to keep this circus from falling apart and that’s what Mitchell and Gay are.

Veterans-ish – The two players I have in mind for this category are Robert Golden and Ross Cockrell. These guys are veterans, technically. They just don’t really have any experience. Due to certain circumstances each of these players are a few years into their NFL careers but are just now getting the chance to break. They’re experience, coupled with their motivation, will make them an asset.

Robert Golden has the safety job locked down at the moment but it’s a fairly tentative hold. Golden adds a steady, proven hand. He worked his way up through thankless special teams play where he became captain and when forced to play safety for an extended period last year he actually did pretty well.

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Ross Cockrell seems like he just got here and now he’s the wise old man. He was stuck on the bench with a loaded Bills secondary and when the Steelers picked him up last year it wasn’t clear what he could do. He turned out to be NFL player when given the chance. He, like Golden, will help us breath a little easier knowing at least they’re there and capable.

Think of these guys like Arthur Moats of the secondary, or Jason Worilds. Maybe like Doug Legusky was. They’re here to start when they have to start, and get out of the way if someone pops, or step back in if that pop turns out to be unsustainable. They’ll be here in case of injury and to clean up the kids’ messes. But players like James Harrison and Kelvin Beachum came from similar beginnings so don’t keep expectations too low.

The Kid’s Table – It’s not hard to figure out who’s sitting at the kid’s table. The kids. The players we’re talking about here are Artie Burns, Sean Davis, Senquez Golson, and Doran Grant. Just a bunch of super talented young players who have never seen the field of an NFL game.

DB Coach Carnell Lake has his work cut out for him. He’s going to have to get all these young players NFL ready. He’s the coach for the corners and the safeties. There’s no coach on the Steelers and hardly any in the NFL who has a bigger workload than poor Carnell Lake. Oh, and he also has to transition to an entirely new defensive philosophy in the Cover 2.

Let’s not go pitying Carnell Lake too much though. The Steelers have ignored the secondary for a long time and that trend has turned around in a big way the last couple years. Burns is a first round pick. Both Golson and Davis are second round picks. And Grant, the most experienced of the bunch, having been on the practice squad last year, was a fourth round pick.

Think of these players as the Bud Dupree, the Ryan Shazier of the secondary. They’re the Maurkice Pouncey or David DeCastro. They’re the blue chip players who are looking to be the next Pro Bowlers, the next leaders of the team.

But it’s not guaranteed that they will become a DeCastro or Pouncey. They could just as easily turn out to be a Mike Adams, or a Jarvis Jones (too soon? Yes, let’s give him one more year). They could be a Ziggy Hood. They could be like Sean Spence and face injuries that prevent them from reaching their full potential. Dale Lolley of the Observer Reporter said Golson had an MRI recently, maybe precautionary but not clear and therefore a concern.

That is perhaps what is so daunting about the challenge coach Lake faces. It’s all on him. The Steelers have focused very hard in the draft on positions before. With the offensive line it worked great. With the defensive line it worked out too eventually. But with the linebackers and the outside linebackers as a whole it is a little unclear.

Lake has been the Steelers defensive backs coach since 2011. He’s a former Steelers player, a five time pro bowler, and part of the NFL 1990s All-Decade Team. As much goodwill as that all carries with it, it does not change the fact that the current roster for the Steelers is a blessing and a curse for Lake.

It’s true that although the Steelers linebacker draft hasn’t really shown much yet they actually promoted Coach Butler to defensive coordinator as well as Jerry Olavsky and Joey Porter to his old job, but Butler had a much longer history with the Steelers that included success stories over many years. Lake does not have an example of a rookie he coached up to greatness.

The young group Lake has is so talented that if they aren’t producing in a couple years he’ll certainly be on the hot seat. Tomlin will be there to help as he’s a former defensive backs coach himself and he’ll certainly be an asset to the young players but ultimately what happens with this group will fall on Lake. It will make or break his career.

Art Rooney II recently told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette, “We’ve made some mistakes, there’s no denying that.” He was referring to evaluating players in the draft, and he’s right, but at a certain point they’re going to think the mistake is more in the coaching than the player end of the staff.

It’s true that players like Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown were big busts under Lake but he did coach up Robert Golden and Keenan Lewis. Easy to forget since once he reached his potential we let him go to the Saints, to make room for the previously mentioned Cortez Allen. So that’s partially on Colbert.

And then there’s players like Terry Hawthorne and Shaquille Richardson who never even got to see the field for one reason or another. So there are plenty of reasonable excuses for the lack of secondary success.

It could very well be that the front office is what’s been holding back the secondary. That Lake is good enough to make journeymen and undrafted free agents work while the Steelers have been free to make the offense great. But no longer.

Lake has been given so much talent he’s almost by default in the hot seat due to expectations alone. But this particularly hot seat is made of gold with rockets on the side. He’s been making houses with his bare hands and now he has to make a skyscraper but the Steelers gave him bulldozer and a crane so he needs to break ground or figure out how quick.

Lake told Mike Prisuta of, “I try to hold the standard pretty high. It doesn’t matter to me who I have in my room. The key is that you do what is asked of you, what your assignment asks of you. You may not have all the best talents in the world. You may come from a variety of backgrounds. The key is just to do what’s asked. Not only have our players improved but we as coaches in coming up with gameplans, we’re improving every week, too. And I think that’s helping.”

Next: Steelers are lucky to have Darrius Heyward-Bey

Well let’s hope it all comes together soon because the Steelers are a decent secondary away from a Super Bowl.