Keys to the Super Bowl: Defensive Backs Coach Carnell Lake



It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Carnell Lake. Back in 2011 or so I went to a Ladies Training Camp, and Lake was one of the speakers. (I suppose as a newbie he got one of the assignments nobody else wanted.) I was so impressed at the time with the way he took us through some film and talked about working with some of the individual players.

Fast-forward to 2016, and there were more than a few people calling for his head. It was entirely understandable. The Steelers had drafted defensive backs—a lot of them—and the results just weren’t there. It’s certainly reasonable to look to the coaching as at least one of the causes when a given position group has disappointed.

But I’m also a fan of taking circumstances into account.  It isn’t particularly uncommon for a seeming sow’s ear (at least if you believe the draft profiles) to turn into a silk purse, but the opposite is scarcely unknown either. When evaluating a coach, you do have to look at who he is given to work with before you can start to assess his lack of success.

And there is no doubt that the Steelers were focused on other things during Lake’s tenure with the Steelers. As noted, they did draft, or pick up as UDFA’s or invitees, a goodly number of defensive backs, but not until the last two seasons did they go as high as the second round (Senquez Golson), and not until 2016 did they spend a first-rounder on a DB.
“But,” you may opine, “lots of teams pick up guys in the sixth round who turn into awesome defensive backs.” And I agree that it is certainly possible to get a good DB in the later rounds or as UDFAs, but it’s more hit or miss. You could also point to New England to say that possibly the best quarterback in the league, according to many, was drafted in the sixth round. But this doesn’t prove that great QBs commonly come from the sixth round, just that in this instance there was a sort of harmonic convergence of the player, the coach, and the system. The fact is, if you are really determined to get a top-flight quarterback, your chances of finding one are much higher in the top of the first round than they are in the sixth.

Or is this true? Let’s check it out.

Here are the Top 10 Active Quarterbacks for 2017 (according to Sporting News), followed by their Flacco rating and draft number overall. [There were a number of quarterback rankers to choose from, but how could I pass up the guys that graded quarterbacks by Flacco numbers? Flacco himself, in case you’re wondering, grades out with one Flacco, which puts him #20…]

  • 1: Tom Brady [House of Satan New England]: 5 Flaccos, #199. It’s worth adding the Sporting News commentary, as follows: It would be seven Flaccos had Flacco not knocked Brady out of the playoffs those other two times…
  • 2: Aaron Rodgers [Green Bay]: 5 Flaccos, #24
  • 3. Ben Roethlisberger [Steelers]: 4.5 Flaccos, #11
  • 4. Matt Ryan [Atlanta]: 4.5 Flaccos, #3
  • 5. Russell Wilson [Seahawks]: 4.5 Flaccos, #75
  • 6. Drew Brees [Saints]: 4.5 Flaccos, #32
  • 7. Cam Newton [Carolina]: 4 Flaccos, #1
  • 8. Andrew Luck [Colts]: 4 Flaccos, #1
  • 9. Eli Manning [ NYG]: 4 Flaccos, #1
  • 10. Derek Carr [Raiders]: 4 Flaccos, #36

Let’s do the same exercise for cornerbacks. This time the rankings are for the 2016 regular season, and were chosen by none other than Ike Taylor:

  • 1. Richard Sherman [ Seattle]: #154
  • 2. Patrick Peterson [Cardinals]: #5
  • 3. Chris Harris, Jr. [Broncos]: UDFA
  • 4. Marcus Peters [Kansas City]: #18
  • 5. Josh Norman [Washington]: #143
  • 6. Janoris Jenkins [NYG]: #39
  • 7. Adam Jones [Cincinnati]: #6
  • 8. Xavier Rhodes {Vikings]: #25
  • 9. Aqib Talib [Broncos]: #20
  • 10. Jalen Ramsey [Jaguars]: #5

There are more outliers than with the quarterbacks, but as you can see the majority were drafted in the first round.

So to return to Carnell Lake, here’s what he had to work with, with draft year and number:

  • Curtis Brown: [2011] #95
  • Cortez Allen [2011] #111
  • Terrence Frederick: [2012] #246
  • Terry Hawthorne [2013} #150
  • Shaquille Richardson [2014] #157
  • Senquez Golson [2015] #56
  • Doran Grant [2015] #121

It’s hard to guess how much say he had in the 2011 draft, as he was hired on March 7 of 2011. But there is one failed pick which can be blamed on him, I suppose, Shaquille Richardson, who Lake had worked with before and persuaded the Steelers to draft. Of all these guys, only Doran Grant is still on an NFL roster, (except for Golson, so far.) Several of them are on CFL rosters, however, for what that’s worth.

You would think that out of seven draftees you would hit the jackpot at least once. (The jury is still out on Golson, and of course he couldn’t help getting injured.) The question is, do you blame the evaluating, the coaching, a combination of the two, or is it just the luck of the draw? After all, other teams can point to Antonio Brown and say “See, the Steelers picked him up in the sixth round!” Which is true, but scarcely germane.

So I decided to have a look at a few of the teams with young, highly ranked corners, and see what their track record is. Let’s start with Pittsburgh West and Patrick Peterson. He was of course very highly touted before the draft and has lived up to his promise. Who else have they drafted between 2011 and 2015, and how have they done?

  • [2011, no other corners besides Peterson]
  • Jamell Fleming [2012] #80 (played on a few practice squads, currently unemployed)
  • Tyrann Mathieu [2013] #69
  • [2014 and 2015 –  no corners drafted]

Mathieu is of course a special case, as he was drafted far below his talent level because of character concerns. So far it’s worked out for the Cardinals.

Let’s try the Panthers, since they are the ones that drafted Josh Norman, and clearly they got quite a bargain. Let’s see who else they picked up:

  • Brandon Hogan [2011] #98 (Two seasons with the Panthers, cut, brief stint in the CFL)
  • [Josh Norman]
  • Bené Benwikere [2014] #148 (Played three seasons for the Panthers, was cut, on various practice squads, now on the Bengals roster)
  • [2015- no corners]

Well, so far no one can match the Steelers for number of tries, but note that other than Josh Norman, who was already on the list, there are no major successes. After all, Cortez Allen stuck for several seasons before they cut bait.

One more try—the Vikings:

  • Brandon Burton [2011] #139 (Played a bit, spent two seasons on various practice squads, out of football since end of 2014)
  • Josh Robinson [2012] #66 (oft injured, now signed with Jaguars)
  • [2013 – Xavier Rhodes]
  • Antone Exum [2014] #182 (currently on Vikings roster)
  • Kendell James [2014] #184 (lots of practice squads, currently a free agent)
  • Jabari Price [2014 #225 (currently on Vikings roster)
  • Trae Waynes [2015] #11 (on roster, naturally)

This turned out to be a reasonable comparison, and the Vikings clearly did better with their later round picks, as two of them are still playing for the Vikings and one is, at least for now, on somebody ele’s roster. (The latter, however, was a top-of-the-third-round pick.) But this does indicate that, at least in the case of three teams picked at random, they seem to have done at least marginally better in cornerback selection and coaching.

It still, I fear, doesn’t answer the “nature or nurture” question. And certainly when given a talented but raw player (Artie Burns) Lake and his minions did just fine.

The trouble with coaching questions is, you can never repeat the experiment. Would any of the six failed corners the Steelers picked between 2011 and 2016 have done better with a different coaching staff, or scheme? Or would a different scouting/coaching staff have picked different guys? There’s no way to know.

In my opinion, 2017 is going to be a sort of Rubicon for Coach Lake. He’s got Senquez Golson, finally (although, ominously, reports about Golson’s dropoff due to the injury have trickled down, and Golson may ultimately not pan out.) He’s also got Cameron Sutton [third round] and Brian Allen [fifth round] from this draft. Ross Cockrell and William Gay are still around—the latter was considered by Pro Football Focus to be the Steelers’ best corner last season, although more than a few people would dispute this. There are, as usual, a few UFDAs in the mix, including Brandon Dixon, who I profiled a couple of weeks ago. It’s reasonable to expect that this group of guys will improve overall, even if a few of the roles have changed.

I’m guessing many people would say this is THE key to the Super Bowl (or, more precisely, to any hope of making it there.) I’m not sure I agree. But there is no doubt that Coach Lake and his band of merry men are going to be An important factor in any hopes for a seventh Lombardi.










  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    Lake finally has some talent to work with. I look forward to how it turns out (I especially got high hopes for Sutton but that is just my gut).


    • That’s my feeling as well – that there is finally the talent there. It doesn’t say a lot for the talent evaluation, though. To be fair, it’s always going to be more hit or miss the lower you go. And Cortez Allen, for example, was not lacking in talent or work ethic – he just apparently was a head case. Which I think would have been impossible to discern ahead of time. But if he had panned out things would look rather different…


  • If there were enough quality corners available in the later rounds, nobody would draft them. You get what you pay for.


  • I’m of the opinion that Carnell Lake will be a defensive coordinator within 5 years. Maybe 3. I think he is excellent, and everyone else is going to realize that soon.


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