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Steelers' DBs absorbing Carnell knowledge

| Thursday, Sept. 1, 2011

Beads of sweat form on his shaved head, but they don't stop Carnell Lake from hopping back into line during so-called ladder drills.

The sight of Lake joining players — he has a two-decade head start on some of them when it comes to celebrating birthdays — after a recent practice is hardly an uncommon one.

Working out or running with them has been a regular occurrence since Lake became the latest addition to Steelers coach Mike Tomlin's staff.

"He runs around a little bit, backpedals and shows us some things (proving) that he still has it," Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden said.

If Lake's performance as a coach comes close to matching what he accomplished as a player, the Steelers' secondary will be in good hands.

The team's first-year defensive back coach excelled as a safety and a cornerback for the Steelers in the 1990s, giving him instant credibility with the players under his watch.

The one thing the 44-year-old Lake lacks is a coaching resume of any discernible length.

He spent a year coaching the defensive backs at UCLA, his alma mater, in 2009. Lake also completed training camp internships with the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay before Tomlin brought him back to Pittsburgh.

That is pretty much the extent of his football coaching experience.

Fortunately for Lake and the Steelers, a veteran coaching staff has been helping him get acclimated to his new job. And he can always lean on defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau for whom he once played and whose style he plans to emulate.

Said Lake on what he told his players during training camp: "I'm not going to be hollering and screaming at you. I expect you to act like professionals, I expect you to play like professionals and I'm going to treat you like professionals."

That is the approach Lake took as a player — and is a big reason why LeBeau reached out to him when former defensive backs coach Ray Horton left to become the Arizona Cardinals' defensive coordinator.

"He's one of the highest character players we've ever had around here," LeBeau said of Lake. "He obviously has the skill and the knowledge to convey to these young players what to do and when to do it."

Decorated career

Strong safety Troy Polamalu had just finished talking to reporters outside of the cafeteria at St. Vincent College early last month. The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year was walking away when he was asked what he remembered about his new coach's playing days.

"I'm not much of a football historian," Polamalu said, with an almost apologetic smile.

That is OK since McFadden fancies himself as the "team historian" and is more than happy to rattle off all he remembers about Lake.

Thirty-seven (Lake's jersey number) with no gloves, no tape," McFadden said earlier this week. "Played in Jacksonville, finished in Baltimore. Ninety-seven defensive player of the year if I'm not mistaken."

Lake did indeed win the 1997 AFC Defensive Player of the Year award, perhaps the highlight in a Steelers career filled with them. Overshadowed a bit by Rod Woodson while in Pittsburgh, Lake nonetheless earned a spot on the NFL's All-Decade team in the 1990s.

"I never thought there was a whole lot of difference between him and Rod Woodson," LeBeau said. "Rod rightfully is in the Hall of Fame and Carnell was every bit as big and every bit as quick. I imagine Rod was a little but faster, but Rod was a world-class sprinter. Carnell had a very rare combination of size, strength and speed that you just don't see very often."

Lake also had the athleticism and acumen to make the transition from linebacker to strong safety after the Steelers took him in the second round of the 1989 draft, and later moved to cornerback.

Lake retired in 2001 after one season with the Ravens. Watching his sons play football almost a decade later is what led Lake back to the game — he had co-owned a franchising business before selling it — and there is little question that Steelers are taking somewhat of a leap of faith with him.

UCLA is the only full-time coaching gig that Lake has had in football. His last coaching job before rejoining the Steelers organization: assistant boys basketball coach for Marina High School in southern California.

"I think I have to credit LeBeau and Mike Tomlin for having trust in me to come in and do the job," Lake said. "I think the main thing is to show (the players) not only what to do but to really show them how to do it and beyond that what the offenses are trying to do against you. If I can teach them to anticipate, it's going to make them that much quicker on the field and they'll start to make plays."

Continued education

Lake is one of two coaches on Tomlin's staff with links to Chuck Noll — defensive assistant Jerry Olsavsky also played for Noll — and he smiles when prodded for a good story about the legendary coach.

Lake thinks for a second and then opts for a practical one.

Early in his first camp at St. Vincent, which looked a lot different to Lake than it did this year, Noll approached him about a technique that would help him take on pulling guards and tackles in the open field.

Lake figured he already knew how to do that, having excelled at linebacker in college. It wasn't until he started to get physically beat up that Lake decided to give the technique — stepping with the same foot as your lead shoulder and delivering a rising blow — a try.

"There was a guard that came around and I hit him, and he fell to the ground," Lake recalled with a chuckle. "Ever since then I said, 'You know what• Chuck Noll's not only a good head coach, he's a darn good teacher.' And that's what I really appreciated about him."

The four coaches Lake played for in the NFL — Bill Cowher, Tom Coughlin and Brian Billick were the others — all won at least one Super Bowl. What Lake gleaned from them has to help as he embarks on his coaching career.

"There's a lot of stories, a lot of lessons learned in all those years," Lake said. "As time goes on this season, I'll slowly start to bring out those stories to my guys."

Because of the NFL lockout, Lake didn't have an opportunity to work with his players or get to know them.

He also won't have the luxury of a learning curve since the Steelers fancy themselves as a Super Bowl contender, albeit one in which teams have had some success attacking with the pass.

But if Lake is feeling any pressure, his calm demeanor has yet to betray it.

"I can tell when it gets down to the nitty gritty, he's going to yell but he lets us be us," cornerback Ike Taylor said. "We ask him a lot of questions. He asks us a lot of questions. He could just say, 'This is my way or the highway,' but he's not like that at all.

"I guess since he's played in this defense and he played pretty much every position in the secondary he understands, and it's good to have a coach like that."

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