Kovacevic: Lake is Steelers' first-half MVP
What once was an abomination now seems like an aberration.
It's hard to quantify, really, how much the Steelers have improved from that opening 35-7 loss in Baltimore to this rematch Sunday: They're contenders at 6-2, confident in all phases, deeper than anyone knew and so strategically sharp that the noted New England scholars Bill Belichick and Tom Brady just left town with swelling, itching brains.
It's a good team, one that's enjoyed a wealth of quality individual performances.
And yet, in choosing a first-half MVP, I'll go way off the board, even off the 53-man roster, and take defensive backs coach Carnell Lake.
Most of us think of Lake as the cerebral four-time Pro Bowl safety for the Steelers from 1989-98. But in his new life as a rookie NFL coach, he has dramatically transformed what was supposed to be the team's No. 1 weakness into the NFL's No. 1 pass defense, with an average of 171.6 yards allowed per game.
"Carnell's really done a great job," defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said Thursday on the South Side. "Our secondary has played well. All you have to do is look at our pass numbers. Somebody's doing something right there."
"Coach Lake deserves a lot of credit," safety Ryan Clark said. "He's the guy who's had us prepared physically and mentally, who's given us the game plans. We have some good men in here, but he's the one that's put it together."
Seriously, why is no one talking about this guy?
Ike Taylor was a very good corner, but he's now one of the NFL's best, and he's the Steelers' best since Lake's old teammate, Rod Woodson. He's matching up against the opponents' top receivers and held Andre Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald to three catches each, Wes Welker to four. Overall, Taylor has the league's best burn rate — how often a defensive back is targeted vs. the number of completions — at 32.1 percent.
For a comparison, Bryant McFadden's burn rate last season was 67 percent, the league's fourth-worst.
And how about William Gay?
When it became clear in Latrobe that McFadden's hamstring would keep him out, all the talk-show and social-media rage was vented at Gay. And not without cause. His play ranged from clumsy to cringe-worthy, even though he took the field only in the nickel package.
This season, though, Gay has been outstanding after a rough start in Indianapolis upon taking over for McFadden. His breakthrough was the primary reason LeBeau and Lake felt comfortable with switching to man-to-man coverage against Brady and the Patriots.
This surely represents Lake's crown jewel to this point.
Lake worked with Gay, his teammates say, to study his tendencies and preferences. Gay wanted to be up on the line, handling receivers physically. The Steelers' previous defensive backs coach, Ray Horton, now the defensive coordinator in Arizona, wanted Gay to stay back, as with all his corners. Lake cut him loose.
"I'm just playin' my game, man," Gay said.
LeBeau and the Steelers' players praise Horton for his technique teaching, but they sound like they love Lake for adding that physical element. We saw it with Taylor, too, last week in chipping at Welker.
"Ray Horton was a great coach," LeBeau said. "The reason we wanted to get Carnell was that I had personal experience with him here and knew he was a man of great character. I also knew he was an aggressive player and that he'd be an aggressive coach. I knew what he'd be asking our guys to do."
There are others. Third-year man Keenan Lewis has looked so strong that he's pushing for more duty. Not far behind is Cortez Allen, the fourth-round draft pick. Only McFadden has fallen off, now relegated to special teams after his injury limited his time with Lake in Latrobe.
Lake, 44, has been a quick study. He left the private business world in 2010 to join Green Bay as a coaching intern, then accepted the Steelers' offer in March. He has preferred to lay low, which is why he declined an interview request for this column. He told me during the preseason he wanted the focus on his players, and he's obviously achieved that for all the right reasons.
Next challenge for Lake's secondary, especially Taylor, will be the Ravens' Anquan Boldin, fresh off a 145-yard gem against Arizona.
Anyone still worried?