Carnell Lake Explains Importance Of Having Versatile Safeties

A few weeks ago, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said he’s not opposed to playing Mike Mitchell at strong safety moving forward and that one comment created quite a few discussions as it related to the future of veteran Troy Polamalu and the third-year Shamarko Thomas. This past weekend, Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake was also asked about which spot Mitchell might be playing in 2015.

“Free and strong especially in this system, if you’re versatile you’re going to wind up playing them both anyway,” Lake said following the Steelers selection of Ohio State cornerback Doran Grant in the fourth-round of the 2015 NFL Draft. “Offense has a lot of formation adjustments, a lot of change in strength motion. Receivers are switching from one side of the field to the other causing us to rotate our secondary. At any given time, you could go from strong safety to free safety.

“On the depth chart, you may see someone’s name penciled in as free or strong and for the most part they may play the majority of their snaps as one position or the other. But at some point they’re going to have to play them both. To have a true, in-the-box, strong safety is okay and you need a certain type for that. But the reality is, an offense can get you out of that. If you’re going to play one coverage and have eight in the box and you’re going to be stubborn about what you do on defense, you can certainly keep a safety in the box 100% of the time, but you’re limiting yourself on defense to what you can do.”

The Steelers re-signed veteran safety Will Allen a few weeks ago and while he’s never been recognized as a full-time, every-week starter during his career, he certainly is versatile and has played both the strong and free safety spots in the Steelers defense over the years due to injuries to other players. Lake and Tomlin still value that versatility that Allen has and probably would like more of that moving forward out of both Mitchell and Thomas, who really hasn’t played much of either position during a regular-season game since he was drafted. Now that Polamalu has retired, that’s likely to change this season.

“If I had my choice, I’d want two safeties that can do both,” said Lake. “They can be a force in the run game. They can play in the box. But they can also have the versatility to not only cover deep in the middle, but also man-to-man. In essence what you get is some corner-type coverage safeties that are able to make strong tackles.

“If you can find those guys, you’ve got some weapons back there because you’ve got four guys on the field that can run, that can cover and they can adjust, and they can rotate to different positions without anyone having to leave the field or having to bring somebody on.”

The Steelers hope they have found another versatile safety this past weekend when they selected Louisville product Gerod Holliman in the seventh-round of the draft. While Holliman did have a nation-leading 14 interceptions last season, he really needs a lot of work on his tackling. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert addressed that lacking part of Holliman’s game on Monday in an interview with David Todd on 970 ESPN.

They all have something that they’re going to have to work on and in Gerod’s case it will be run support and his tackling,” said Colbert. “It has to improve but just like with Senquez, when you’ve got a five-eight and a half guy, there has to be some compensating factors and with this guy it certainly is anticipation, angles to the ball and the ability to catch and complete the play.”

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