Developing the Talent: Carnell Lake, Part II

image.jpegThe previous post was getting unwieldy, because there is a great deal to talk about in terms of both Lake and the coaching job he has done so far. In the first post we looked at Lake’s first season (2011) which represented a high point for the secondary. It’s been mostly downhill since. According to Football Outsiders, the 2012 team dropped to No. 15 in the league, the 2013 team was No. 19, and the 2014 team was No. 30.

But guess what? Last season they finished at No. 13, despite not starting a single defensive back who ranked higher than No. 24, according to Pro Football Focus, among players with enough snaps to be ranked. The highest-ranked corner was Ross Cockrell, at No. 27. The highest-ranked safety was Mike Mitchell, at the afore-mentioned No. 24. They considered Antwon Blake to be essentially the worst corner in the league (and much of Steeler Nation would agree with them, I expect.)

I realize that using the Pro Football Focus rankings doesn’t tell us much about the issue of how well-coached they were, so let’s look at it from another angle. Here are where (and when) the various members of the secondary were drafted:

  • William Gay: Round 5, 2007
  • Antwon Blake: UDFA, 2012 (Jaguars)
  • Ross Cockrell: Round 4, 2014 (Bills)
  • Mike Mitchell: Round 2, 2009 (Oakland)
  • Will Allen: Round 4, 2004 (Buccaneers)
  • Robert Golden: UDFA, 2012
  • Shamarko Thomas: Round 4, 2013
  • Brandon Boykin: Round 4, 2012 (Eagles)
  • Doran Grant: Round 4, 2014
  • Ross Ventrone: UDFA, 2010 (Patriots)

Although the difference in the talent level among the majority of NFL players is small, it is real. Note that the highest pick is Mike Mitchell in the 2nd round, and that, coincidentally or not, he was the highest-ranking DB last year. This is certainly not to say that guys can’t produce well beyond their draft slot—it happens all the time, actually—but the chances of getting a top-flight starter certainly diminish as you drop into Day Three of the draft.

How much do they diminish for defensive backs? I don’t know, so I looked at the top 16 corners and safeties last season (again according to PFF—there aren’t a lot of other options) to see where they were drafted. Here’s the info:

  • Top 10: CB No. 5, 9, 15. S No. 6.
  • Rest of the first round: CB No. 6, 7, 13, 16(T). S No. 1, 2, 3, 7, 8, 9, 10 (T).
  • Second round: CB No. 2, 4, 12, 14 16 (T). S No. 5.
  • Third round: CB No. 1*. S No. 4.
  • Fourth round: S No. 12.
  • Fifth round: CB No.3, 11. S No. 13, 15.
  • Sixth round: none
  • Seventh round: S No. 14.
  • UDFA: CB No. 10. S No. 10 (T), 16

*This is Tyrann Mathieu—the Cardinals got a bargain on Mathieu because of character concerns. He would very likely have been a top ten pick had he not done some dumb stuff…

**If you’re paying attention, there is no CB No. 8 and there are two No. 16s. The situation for No. 8 is so bizarre I thought it warranted skipping him, as I really didn’t even know how to classify him. (He’s Delvin Breaux—if you don’t know the story check out his Wiki page).

If we look at the 32 men PFF deemed the best defensive backs in the league, four of them, or 1/8th of the total, are top ten picks (in fact, they were mostly top five.) Although there is certainly a sprinkling of players in other rounds, as you can see almost half of these men were taken in the first round (15) and another six in the second round. In other words, two-thirds of the top defensive backs last season were first or second round picks, and if you add the other two Day Two picks you’re up to over 70%. That seems fairly conclusive to me, with the usual caveats about small sample size. You can obviously find good defensive backs after the second round, but not at all reliably.  Based on last year’s data, the fifth round is the best place to look…

And of course you can’t “rely” on getting a great pick even in the first or second rounds. You just have a much better chance of success.

We as fans seldom know what the players are dealing with, either. Last week the Penguins’ brass finally revealed the injury issues some of their players were playing through during the NHL playoffs. It was fairly horrific—broken fingers, ribs, torn elbow ligaments. The list went on and on.

The reality is, when you’re playing hurt you aren’t as effective, but you may still be the best option. Antwon Blake was an example of that last year, as reports surfaced after the end of the season of the extent of the hand injury he suffered in Week 6, which he played with for the remainder of the season.

Consider that Mike Mitchell didn’t impress the fans much in his first season, and he really didn’t play particularly well. Later we found out he was playing with two torn groin muscles. I find it difficult to believe most of us would get up and go to work, if work entailed anything more physical than sitting at a desk all day, with two torn groin muscles. But to go back out on the field every day, knowing something could well happen to make them worse, takes a certain sort of raw courage.

But we know all teams deal with injuries to one degree or another. This still doesn’t answer the questions about the job Carnell Lake has done in Pittsburgh so far.

Is he the problem? And if so, why did the secondary improve last season despite a mostly uninspiring mix of low draft picks, aging vets, and career special teamers? Let’s consider this further.

One of the hallmarks of Dick LeBeau defenses was a stifling presence up in front. Put the offense in third-and-long and they are going to have to pass, under much less than ideal circumstances. But the general aging of the “Super Bowl” core of defensive players after 2010 began to put additional pressure on the secondary, as the Steelers would try to remain competitive even as they quietly underwent a major rebuild of the defense. And as I noted in the previous post, the rebuilding process began in the trenches. I think it’s reasonable to assume that the fruits of the rebuilding process started showing up last season. If we compare the numbers for run defense, pass defense, and overall defense (again thanks to Football Outsiders) we get a rather classic curve:


Since these are rankings you have to read them backwards—lower is better. I think it’s reasonable to say the run-stuffing front was the first to go south. After being ranked No. 1 against the run in 2010, Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith, 2/3 of the defensive front, were showing their age in 2011. Hampton was too slow to elude the cut blocking the Ravens and other teams were successfully using to neutralize him, and Smith played in only four games before a neck injury ended his season, and career. Brett Keisel was the only member of the trio who remained effective for a few more years. I have to admit that the improvement in run defense in 2012 is the one figure which doesn’t fit the narrative, but I’m guessing Dick LeBeau did some shuffling to temporarily improve this.

Let’s look at this another way. What I gave you above was the ranking—how they compared to the rest of the league. But here are the ratings—the numbers Football Outsiders assigned to them. Again, you have to read it backwards, because in their system, the better the defense, the lower the number, into negative numbers as you can see. I thought this might make a better comparison, since it is theoretically independent of the quality of the other defenses in the league. I also started from 2010, when the Pittsburgh defense was ranked No. 1 in the league:

Defense actualIt does seem as if the secondary is following the front seven trend a year later. The hope is, of course, that they will continue to trend downwards this season, especially as the players the Steelers spent some serious draft capital on start to round into form.

So to return to the defensive rebuild, although the Steelers didn’t entirely neglect the secondary they stuck to drafting a number of guys on Day Three. Unfortunately they didn’t hit the jackpot with any of them. So is this the fault of the players, the scheme, or the coaching?

I’m  swimming way out into the waters of baseless speculation here, based partially on my experience with singers and partially on a hunch. Just as with athletes, you seldom find the “complete package” in a singer who shows up at your university. They may have a glorious voice but be dumb as rocks. (That actually works out okay sometimes, but it certainly isn’t ideal.) Or they may have a fantastic work ethic and just the right look for their “fach” (vocal type) but their voice just doesn’t develop well despite everyone’s best efforts. Or they may have a glorious voice and lots of smarts and the right look but find they don’t really fancy the sort of life you have to have to be a professional singer. (Vocal teachers, and coaches, refer to the required trait as “fire in the belly.”) To find someone with all of the above is rare.

I’m sure this is true of football players as well, and of course some number of them are weeded out at the college level. The guys who make it into the NFL have most likely got most of what you need, but the players who have it all go at the top of the first round, and even they have flaws and come with some amount of uncertainty.

So the question for the people choosing who to draft is, what of the numerous attributes you look at do you value the most? Ideal size for the position? After all, you can’t coach that. A fierce desire to succeed? Not that much use if you don’t have at least some of the necessary traits to back it up. Mental “toughness?” How do you judge that?

My theory is, the Steelers are in the process of shifting their priorities. One common thread in their high-round picks in the past few years has been unusually high levels of athleticism. In their later picks in particular I think a common thread which is emerging is choosing players with a lot of production in college who are (hopefully) undervalued because of sub-optimal size, or coming from an unheralded program, or what have you.

Some years ago a young friend of the family who was incredibly bright but had been very lazy in high school, and consequently gotten rather poor grades, asked for my husband to intervene when he was turned down by CMU. My husband didn’t promise anything other than to talk to the admissions department, and I’ve never forgotten what they told him—that the single best indicator of probable performance at CMU was high school grades. Not fantastic SATs (although they have a pretty high minimum for most programs,) not a fabulous essay, or whatever. If the student had put in the work to excel in high school, they were much more likely to have the necessary work ethic to succeed at CMU.

Obviously college production frequently doesn’t translate to the NFL, or draft order would be determined solely by the stats accumulated during their college years.. Gerod Holliman, drafted last year in the seventh round, had a ridiculously productive 2014, winning the Thorpe award for best DB in college football and so on. But apparently it didn’t translate in his case, because he was cut by the Steelers when they went to a 53-man roster and not offered a spot on the practice squad. He was not picked up until Tampa Bay added him to their practice squad at the very end of last season. They then signed him in early January, only to cut him on April 29th. Holliman had one very good year, but there was a lot on his tape to be concerned about, as noted in his NFL Draft Profile:

A feast or famine free safety whose lack of field discipline and willingness to tackle will be more heavily exploited in the NFL. Rumors of his lack of football character combined with absolutely terrible tape when it comes to tackling could sabotage his draft stock despite his enormous ball skills.

This is perhaps where the stats/psychology guru comes in. Hopefully he has been able to analyze what are the most troubling of the things which cause guys to fall in the draft and to make an educated guess as to which ones don’t matter as much.

And Holliman was, after all, a 7th round pick. Unfortunately, he was the latest in a progression of project DBs the Steelers have picked who haven’t panned out.

There is a lot more invested in the latest crop of defensive backs—two second round picks and a first, to be precise. Is there any reason to think they are going to turn out better? One would certainly hope so. At least from the standpoint of draft position, Carnell Lake is going to have more talent to work with this year. If the secondary hasn’t continued to improve markedly in the next year or two, it may be time to point a finger at Coach Lake. But from what I’ve seen of him as a coach and a man, I will be shocked if it comes to that.


One comment

  • Good article(s) Rebecca, and thanks for putting in the time to put these together.

    I can’t add much more to the issue of Carnell Lake’s performance than I did in my comment to the first post. One thing I will point out about the 2012 defense: The job Dick LeBeau did that year was highly underrated. Things started of “iffy” at best. But by the end of the year, the offense was slipping badly, but the defense was keeping the Steelers in games.

    Remember that disaster in Cleveland late in the season? I don’t remember the exact number of turnovers, but I Think it was 7, yet they only lost the game 20-16. OK, it was the Browns, but when you turn the ball over that many times, you generally get blown out.

    I like Carnell Lake. You’re right, the Steelers haven’t invested a lot of top picks in the secondary, other than Shamarko Thomas, of late. That has changed somewhat, and it will be Lake’s time to shine.


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