Much has been made of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ secondary recently, a statement that could accurately have been made at virtually any point over the past few years. Recently, however, there seems to have been an increase in the finger pointing over whatever issues might be ailing the unit, with many fingers now pointing toward defensive backs coach Carnell Lake.
There are those who believe that Lake is not getting the most out of what is given to him, though it is difficult to ever know that for sure without having some sort of meaningful access to the players.
Perhaps the most notable on this front would be Cortez Allen, who was drafted in Lake’s first year on the job. He did well in some dime snaps as a rookie before being elevated to the nickel in his second year, getting some starting experience late in the season and showing off a flurry of turnovers that helped launch him into the starting lineup outright.
It has been since that promotion that the fifth-year corner has largely fallen flat on his face, losing that starting job in each of the past three seasons, and ultimately being demoted outright. He played in just the opener as the nickel defender this year before spending the next several weeks inactive with a knee injury, now on injured reserve.
But perhaps Allen was never suited to that role to begin with, on a permanent basis. He was given that job largely stemming from a fluke flurry of turnovers, but has since largely looked over his head.
Keenan Lewis, on the other hand, is a cornerback that blossomed under Lake and proved to be a quality starter when healthy—in New Orleans. Lewis was open about crediting Lake for setting him on the right path.
William Gay has played the best football of his career under Lake, perhaps because the two have a safety’s knowledge of the defense. Antwon Blake was raised from a gunner to somebody who can play on defense—albeit, not well when asked to be an every-down starter.
Lake was able to get Ross Cockrell on the field in just a couple of weeks, and he has actively and abundantly contributed to the defense since then. Robert Golden is beginning to blossom at the moment on the defensive side of the ball.
It is at this point that the argument gets redirected from his coaching methodology to his ability to be a scout, pointing toward the numerous drafting failures and lack of development from defensive backs under his tenure.
As for the development argument, it may be worth looking up the following names, to see how they’ve fared in the league since being released by the Steelers: Crezdon Butler, Curtis Brown, Terrence Frederick, Terry Hawthorne, Shaquille Richardson.
Their contributions to defenses around the NFL are next to nothing. If other defensive coordinators could not turn them into players, why should Lake be expected to? None of them are currently on an NFL roster.
All but Butler were drafted under Lake’s watch, and Mike Tomlin has not been tight-lipped about the fact that his assistant coaches contribute to the intel process. He had a personal connection with Richardson, for example.
But if the concern is the scouting, then reality must dictate that the defensive backs coach is a low priority on the pecking order of blame. Head coach Mike Tomlin, general manager Kevin Colbert, defensive coordinator Keith Butler (and Dick LeBeau before him), the owners, and the scouts all play a more involved and integral role in reaching a decision to draft a specific player, and ultimately pulling the trigger.
The Steelers have clear issues in their secondary, not many would question that. The talent deficiency is obvious. But to point the finger at Lake without much in the way of tangible evidence seems more like scapegoating than productive dialogue.
The truth is that he has not had much to work with, especially after Ike Taylor’s play declined and Lewis left in free agency, with the front office never offering him a contract. And when it comes to roster building, he is but one small voice drowned out by a cacophony of others, limiting to making suggestions.