Steelers' DBs benefit from Lake effect
A year as a training camp volunteer. A couple months as a defensive backs coach at his alma mater. A summer coaching internship.
That was about the extent of Carnell Lake's coaching experience, a resume that hardly would be considered a front-runner for an NFL coaching vacancy.
But five Pro Bowls, an AFC Defensive Player of the Year award, being named to the all-decade team of the 1990s and playing every secondary position and every sub-package at a Hall of Fame level makes up for some shortcomings.
And the Steelers are glad that's the case.
Lake transitioned from player to coach without much in between besides a nearly 10-year hiatus from the game.
Lake has done it flawlessly.
The Steelers finished No. 1 against the pass in each of Lake's two years as defensive backs coach, helping the defense to the top overall spot in the league.
“When you are with people and coach them, you know quite a bit about them,” defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. “We felt very positive that Carnell would be a great defensive back coach for us. He had on-the-field experience at every position that he had to coach.”
LeBeau paused. “All I told him was to teach them how to play the way you played,” he said.
Lake has taken it a step farther. He's treating his players the way he would want to be treated as a player, and it's resonating.
“I treat them like professionals, I treat them like grown men, and I don't holler at them,” Lake said. “I try to teach them or remind them, and that's my style.”
It's a style that goes over well, especially with the veterans.
When Lake was hired in 2011, he inherited an accomplished unit of three 30-plus-year-old guys in Ryan Clark, Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor. Clark, for one, was nervous, considering his past dealings with former star players who did not not necessarily make good coaches.
His concerns faded quickly.
“He came in understanding that he had veterans and asked our input and allowed us to be decision-makers,” Clark said. “It is a huge level of respect, and with that, anything he asks us to do, we go out and do it. All of us already respected what he did on the field so we were excited to work with him.”
After playing 10 seasons with the Steelers, including being named 1997 AFC Defensive Player of the Year, Lake left as a free agent to play two seasons with Jacksonville and a final one with Baltimore in 2001. Lake made a fifth Pro Bowl in 1999 with the Jaguars.
His reputation grew during the 1995 Super Bowl XXX season, when he was asked to move from strong safety to cornerback to fill in for future Hall of Fame cornerback Rod Woodson, who tore his ACL in Week 1. He did it once again in 1997, and the Steelers advanced to the AFC championship game.
“I love a coach who has been through the trenches, and Carnell Lake played every position you can think of,” cornerback William Gay said. “You can't say, ‘But, Coach, you never played this.' He played nickel, corner, safety and saw it all. Every time he speaks, we are all in awe.”
Cornerback Ike Taylor added: “Everything he says matters. He doesn't say stuff just because he is a coach and he is being paid to coach. He saying it because he played three positions. How can you argue with him?”