Developing the “Talent:” Secondary Coach Carnell Lake



As I considered who to cover next in this series, I realized that it pretty much has to be Carnell Lake. Both the first and second round picks are being turned over to his care, and how well they develop will depend at least in part on his coaching ability.

Lake was, of course, one of the Steeler greats at defensive back, and since he played both corner and safety, would seem to be a natural as a DB coach. But there’s more to coaching than knowing how to do something yourself—lots more. In fact, it can be a hindrance to have been really good at whatever it is you do. It can be very difficult to see what the problem is when someone is struggling to do something you did without thinking about it.

It is perhaps tempting to think this is why the Steelers secondary just hasn’t been very good with Lake at the helm. It’s always tempting to look for easy answers. This is easily seen by the enormous impatience certain teams have with their coaching staff.

We have seen this in action, close up and personal, on what I like to call “Black Sunday.” In case you’re wondering, that’s the day the Steelers play the Browns in Week 17. The game always ends in a loss for Cleveland, often an embarrassingly large one, and by the end of the day the head coach has been fired.

If you don’t believe me, here’s the proof:

  • January 3, 2016: W, 28-12. Mike Pettine fired January 3rd.
  • December 29, 2013: W, 20-7. Rob Chudzinski fired December 29th.
  • December 30, 2012: W, 24-10. Pat Shurmur fired, December 31st.
  • January 2, 2011: W, 41-9. Eric Mangini fired Janurary 3rd.
  • December 28 2008: W, 31-0. Romeo Crennel fired December 29th.

The only two coaching changes in the history of the post-1996 Browns which didn’t occur immediately after (generally the day of) a loss to the Steelers were these:

  • November 14, 2004: W, 24-10. Butch Davis fired two weeks later.
  • October 22, 2000: W, 22-0. Chris Palmer was fired at the end of the season. I really only included this because of the spooky correlation between the score and the date.

There was a single season in which the final game of the regular season was a Steelers/Browns game, (naturally it was a Steelers win, as most of the games between these two teams were) and yet the head coach kept his job—the end of the 2001 season. Other than this, there are no seasons in which the final game of the regular season was between the Steelers and the Browns and the head coach wasn’t fired. Weird.

Anyhow, the Steelers don’t roll that way. They aren’t afraid to change position coaches if they see the need, but they also don’t seem to see the need to find a sacrificial victim if they think the coach is doing well.

So why has the Steelers’ secondary seemingly been mostly either unimpressive or just plain bad under Lake? Let’s look at who he had to work with and how the secondary ranked, starting with 2011, when he took over.

Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark were still patrolling the backfield, and had the speed and strength to do so extremely well. Ike Taylor, he of the famous hands of stone, had two interceptions that season, and not much got by him.. Bryant McFadden had returned to the fold, but it soon became evident he didn’t have much left in the tank. Lake also had Keenan Lewis, who improved tremendously under his coaching, William Gay, who everyone loved to hate but who was improving, Ryan Mundy, Will Allen, and some rookies—Cortez Allen (4th round,) Curtis Brown (3rd round,) and Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith (UDFA.)

The 2011 season was a high point for the pass defense. According to Football Outsiders the Steelers’ defense was third in the league against the pass.

Although Pro Football Reference‘s Approximate Value metric is somewhat of a blunt instrument when looking at player value, at least they actually rate everyone, for a long way back. It’s one of the only ways available to ordinary mortals to compare players during past seasons by more than raw stats. Not that I’m bitter about Pro Fooball Focus’s new non-friendly format or anything. First let’s look at how they rated the “Super Bowl core.” The numbers are for 2011, followed by the numbers for subsequent seasons. (Ryan Clark’s final number was his final season, in Washington.)

  • Troy Polamalu: 15 4/9/4
  • Ryan Clark: 10 8/6/(6)
  • Ike Taylor:  7  6/5/2

You can see that, with a single exception, these players were on the decline. And I would argue that Troy Polamalu’s number in 2012 (4) was low mainly because he missed so much time. Had he been able to play a full season, I’m guessing you would have seen something between 15 and 9.

So is this the fault of coaching, or just the inevitable effects of Father Time on a position in which eventually physical decline can no longer be offset by experience and strategy? I would certainly argue the latter.

Let’s look at the rest of the backfield. Again, the 2011 number will be followed by numbers from the following seasons, if any:

  • Bryant McFadden:  1
  • William Gay: 7 (7)/5/6/7
  • Keenan Lewis: 2 8/(8/5/0)
  • Ryan Mundy: 2 3/(4/5)
  • Will Allen: 1 4/4/2/5
  • Cortez Allen: 1  3/4/3/0
  • Curtis Brown:  1  1/0
  • Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith: 0 0/0

Keenan Lewis improved noticeably over the course of 2011, to the point where he was the starter in 2012. He then parlayed that into a nice contract in New Orleans. As you can see, he had one good year, one pretty good year, and then nothing. In 2015 he played in 6 games and started one, but accumulated so few stats they didn’t assign him any value at all. A change of venue certainly didn’t improve him.

William Gay was still a fan whipping boy, but had improved a good bit. As you can see, he was rated equally with Ike Taylor, and he also had two interceptions that season.

Will Allen is an interesting case. In his second and third seasons (2005 and 2006, with Tampa Bay) he improved markedly, posting scores of 4 and 5. After that it was all ones, all the way up until he had a year with Carnell Lake. Then he began posting better scores, with the exception of 2014, and tied his career high of 5 in 2015, at age 33.

Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen could be said to be the big knocks against Carnell Lake. But it is difficult to see how any amount of coaching could have dealt with the injury problems which eventually got Brown cut or the apparent psychological problems which seemed to render the otherwise talented Allen ineffective.

In the following years the Steelers would attempt to address the secondary by drafting bargain-counter DBs, and unfortunately would get what they paid for.  In 2012 it was Terrence Frederick (7th  round.) In 2013 it was Shamarko Thomas (4th round) and Terry Hawthorne (5th round.) In 2014 it was Shaquille Richarson (5th  round) who can be directly blamed on Carnell Lake, as he pushed for him to be drafted. In 2015 it was Gerod Holliman (7th round) and Senquez Golson in the second. The latter pick, as well as the use of both the first and second round picks this year, would indicate the Steelers have decided they need to invest some serious capital there.

Of course, no team can address every problem at once. The Steelers have systematically addressed the offensive line and the defensive front seven in the past six drafts, and now they have turned their attention to the backfield.

There is so much more one can talk about concerning what has happened between 2011 and 2016 and all of the attendant coaching issues that I’m going to cut this off now. The rest will appear on Monday.

to be continued…


One comment

  • Nice article Rebecca.

    While I think your analysis is overall very solid, 2016 will truly be the year the “Lake Effect” gets put in the crucible. I credited and continue to credit Ivan for coining the term and being on of the first to point out the sustained improvement by both William Gay and Keenan Lewis under Carnell Lake. By the end of 2012 it also looked like Cortez Allen would follow suit.

    With that said, Cortez Allen’s career has faltered, to say the least.

    Honestly, I am not sure what’s going on there. Tomlin’s comments have let me to guess that there are some non-athletically related issues. “Steel Dad” over at Steel City Blitz has written a couple of times that a source on the South Side told him that Allen had a chronic knee issue. If either of those things are true, then neither can be laid at Lake’s feet.

    However, there is the issue of Shamarko Thomas.

    While I don’t have any inside information, the Steelers broke with 40 years of franchise tradition and traded a future pick to go up and get him. Lake himself was on the record saying that 2 inches were all that was keeping Shamarko for being a 1st rounder (note, he said the same thing about Senquez).

    Clearly Shamarko Thomas has not panned out as planned….

    Antwon Blake is also an interesting case, as Lake dropped his name in 2014 when pressed about why the Steelers waited so long in the draft to pick a corner. OK, Blake did well for a waiver wire pick up, but the Steelers seemed just as happy to let him walk.

    For the record, I like Carnell Lake. I liked him as a player and I very much want and hope to see Ivan’s “Lake Effect” hypothesis validated because so much is riding on the development of Burns, Davis and Golson. But I wouldn’t advise betting the mortgage on this coming to pass.


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