How is Cortez Allen going to bounce back after a horrendous 2014 season? How much playing time will rookies Senquez Golson and Doran Grant receive? Who replaces Troy Polamalu at safety? These are only a few of the mysteries heading into the 2015 season as the Steelers’ secondary looks to rebound, led by defensive backs coach, Carnell Lake. An obvious Achilles’ heel of the defense, the support beams finally caved in last season, after years of failed draft picks like Curtis Brown or Shaquille Richardson, and what seemed to be “band aid” free agent pick-ups like Brice McCain, or short-term fixtures for a long-term problem.
The Steelers’ defensive backs coach since 2010, Lake is in charge of fixing this mess, hopefully starting in Latrobe, PA when training camp commences in a few short weeks. Two of the issues on-hand will be the play of two of the starter’s from last year’s defense, in corner Cortez Allen and safety Mike Mitchell. As Mitchell allegedly played the 2014 season with two torn groin muscles, his play in 2015 is expected to be a lot better. Then there’s the case of Allen, who parlayed his somewhat promising play in 2013 into a 5-year/$26 million deal. He was looked at as a crucial piece of the youth movement the team was aiming at on the defensive side, but since putting pen to paper, he has looked like anything but.
He was beaten deep early and often in 2014, before ex-defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau put him on the bench. It’ll be up to Lake heading into camp to try and smooth over the grey areas from 2014. So in essence, last season’s struggles on the back end can’t totally be blamed on Lake, considering the pieces and parts he had to work with.
Speaking of that, he’ll have some new toys to work with in camp as well, in the form of ball magnets Gerod Holliman and Senquez Golson, who combined for 28 picks last season. That’s an insane statistic, as in the last two seasons combined, the Steelers as a whole have only recorded a combined 21 interceptions.
Then of course, we have the ultimate question, what player(s) will be used to fill the vacated role of Polamalu? Will it be 2013 fourth round pick, Shamarko Thomas? Up to this point, he’s flashed but his chief concern is that he can’t seem to avoid the injury bug.
If anyone can erase some of those question marks and unlock the potential of the current grouping, it’s Lake, a 10-year veteran of the Steelers himself. Drafted out of UCLA in 1989, he didn’t start immediately, but when he did, he elevated the play of the entire defense. In 1994, he finally got the respect he deserved, making his first of five Pro Bowls as Pittsburgh advanced to the AFC Championship versus San Diego. That season was typical Steelers football, as the team registered a franchise record 55 sacks, with the back end sewn up by Lake and Rod Woodson.
Safety wasn’t the only position Lake played, showing the versatility to play cornerback as well, out of need due to an injury to Woodson the following year. Lake helped lead some of the nastiest defenses to ever take the field for Pittsburgh, and with his help and wisdom, he should be able to coach up the green members of the current roster, and help mold them into a sufficient unit. As the phrase “a good pass rush masks a deficient secondary” is often tossed around, this hopefully rings true in 2015, as it will help make Lake’s job a whole lot easier.