The Steelers have acquired a lot of talent for their long suffering secondary in a short amount of time. But as Ryan Clark’s analysis of their past troubles suggests, that might put Lake on the hot seat.
The Steelers have had secondary difficulties for a few years now. It’s been in a steep decline ever since the final parts of the previous Super Bowl defense left. The Steelers tried to preempt this decline with some late round picks that didn’t work out. Now they have acquired a lot of talent through the draft. This should help Carnell Lake, but it’s so much so fast that if no one pops it could cost Lake his job.
Now Lake did a pretty good job with Keenan Lewis, who the Steelers let go to the Saints in a perhaps ill-advised strategy of keeping the aging and expensive Super Bowl team. Lake also did a pretty good job of getting a random bunch of free agents on 1 year contracts to form a passable secondary for a couple years in a row.
But Cortez Allen fell apart. Shamarko Thomas does not appear to be working out. Then there were players like Shaquille Richardson and Terry Hawthorne that were drafted but never really go to play. It’s true that Lake hasn’t developed a ton of talent but he’s also not had a lot to work with.
The question regarding the Steelers secondary is why? Is it the scouting, the talent, or is it the development?
Ryan Clark had some advice for Lake, suggesting to Chris Bradford of the Beaver County Times that, “He’s really going to have to look at the way he utilizes guys, the way he develops guys, because these guys coming out can actually play football.”
He spoke about the goal, saying “It’s about getting them integrated into a system where it’s very important that you’re a very sound football player. I think these guys have been talented, they just need to figure out ways to develop them and let them come along and learn to be like Ike Taylor, learn to be like William Gay, learn to be like some of these guys we’ve seen in the program.”
Finally, he offered a word of caution, counseling that, “Everything seems so rushed like they have to have it immediately these days but sometimes you may need to wait.”
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It’s not a great sign when a former players starts offering suggestions about what the current coach is doing wrong. Now he doesn’t appear to blame Tomlin for this, saying earlier in the interview Tomlin’s skills with defensive backs are difficult to utilize from the head coaching position.
On the other hand, people have been very critical of Tomlin’s ability to draft. Since the offense exploded into the best in Steelers history and perhaps the league currently, those accusations have quieted down. Yes, Tomlin can draft.
But there have been misses, consider the linebacker unit which they put so many draft picks into and which has still not paid off. On the other hand there’s the offensive line which has been completely turned around. Even there though there’s Mike Adams.
So it’s difficult to place blame. As with most things, it’s probably a little bit of both.
But over the past two years the Steelers have invested multiple high round draft picks into the secondary. In 2015 the acquired Senquez Golson in the 2nd round and Doran Grant in the 4th. Now in 2016, the Steelers have acquired Artie Burns in the first round and Sean Davis in the second round.
In some ways, this is great for defensive backs coach Carnell Lake. He has a mountain of talent to work with. He’s suddenly surrounded by more talent than he’s ever had to work with. He can take physically gifted athletes and work with them for years. He won’t have to scramble to make journeymen fit for a year before moving onto the next one.
But as Clark’s criticism suggests, this is a double edged sword. Questions exist about Lake’s ability to develop players. These questions are perhaps justifiable. But if none of the four players previously discussed pop, it could be undeniable.
Now Carnell Lake already has a legacy. He’s already one of the best defensive backs of the 90s and one of the best to ever wear the black and gold. Pittsburgh is always going to love Lake. But the next five years are probably going to determine his NFL coaching career.
He’ll have to navigate young players, old players, and a changing defense. If his playing career is any indication, he’s going to do the work that is necessary to do that successfully. Stay tuned.