Kovacevic: Lake is Steelers' first-half MVP
TribLIVE Sports Videos
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?
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Starkey: Stupid Steelers
- Steelers running backs Bell, Blount will face drug charges
- It’s only exhibition, but these Steelers could solidify roster spots vs. Eagles
- Commitment by Steelers’ Gilbert pays off
- Steelers are hoping to mirror Eagles’ full-bore, no-huddle offense
- Run game not primary focal point for Steelers
- Steelers notebook: Polamalu not concerned with being old man among safeties
- Steelers defensive end Thomas is finding success on the field
- Steelers re-sign Keisel to bolster depth on defensive line
- Rossi: Blount brings back Steelers’ swagger
- Steelers sign tackle Gilbert to $30 million deal