Our Ron Lippock spoke with former Steelers safety and defensive backs coach Carnell Lake. Lake was a second-round pick out of UCLA and played for the team from 1989 to 1998. He as a five-time Pro Bowler, a five-time All-Pro and is a member of the NFL’s 1990s All-Decade Team and Pittsburgh Steelers All-Time Team. Lake worked for the Steelers from 2011 to 2018.
First, let me know what you’ve been doing with yourself since stepping down in Pittsburgh?
To be honest, I’m not sure what I’ll do next. I left the Steelers to spend time with my two sons. My youngest is a senior in high school – it’s his last year. I just wanted to go through that journey with him.
My oldest son is a Sophomore at UCLA. He plays football there. I wanted to be able to watch him play. I couldn’t do that if I was coaching. I knew I couldn’t get that time back if I was coaching. I know I would have regretted it.
How hard was that departure for you?
It was hard. I loved my job. Even as a player – and as a coach – the Steelers were an exceptional organization. They were great to work for as a player and a coach. I learned a lot from Mike Tomlin. He was an outstanding coach. I would have loved to have stayed in other circumstances and it was hard telling him I was leaving.
What did he say to you?
I felt bad leaving without getting the job done. I wanted to win another Super Bowl for him and to get a ring for myself. I never got a ring. Maybe someday!
Well, when I told him, basically, what could he say. He told me he understood. That there was no way he was going to try and talk me out of wanting to spend time with my kids. He’s a class act.
Who helped influence your coaching style and how did you approach coaching?
When I first started I came in with an open mind. I wanted to come in and help the guys – anyone I could. I wanted to be helping to assist LeBeau and Butler and to make sure I was doing the job Coach Tomlin wanted me to do. I wanted to work to make players better within the parameters of what they asked me to do. I’d make sure they knew the gameplan and articulated to them what was required from week to week. I also worked a lot to develop the younger players- I took that as my responsibility.
There were a good number of veteran players when you got there. How did you work with those guys?
There were, yes — Ike (Taylor), Troy (Polamalu), Ryan Clark. I just wanted to make sure that I didn’t get In the way of their success. I wanted them to know I wasn’t there to change them – they knew who they were and how to be successful. I wanted them to know I was there to support them. I’d give them schematic information and help sometimes on techniques. But mainly I wanted them to know I would support them. I tried to think of what I would have wanted as a veteran player. I wouldn’t have wanted a coach who tried to change me. They were tried and tested already.
Stepping back a bit, I wanted to talk to you about being drafted by the Steelers. Were you surprised?
It was weird. I had a lot of conversations with various teams but the Steelers didn’t talk to me much. I had one brief conversation with Dick Haley when he came to see some guys work out at UCLA. I wasn’t scheduled to work out then but I came and watched the guys and sat in the bleachers. He came up to me there and introduced himself then went back to the guys working out. Then next thing I knew they drafted me!
You were a linebacker in college. How prepared were you for that transition to safety?
Every day was a huge learning curve. My whole career I never backpedaled. There was nothing defensive back in my background. Not one snap.
Noll was instrumental. He provided me with technique. He helped teach me how to take on blocks. He knew about leverage and I was an undersized player. I had some experience having played linebacker but a lot of the credit goes to him.
And a lot of the guys I played with helped. I took a page watching (Rod) Woodson, (Thomas) Everett, (Larry) Griffin. I looked a them every day. I learned on the run. It took me three years to learn it. I was behind the eight ball until my fourth year. That’s when (Dick) LeBeau came in with (Dom) Capers. LeBeau was the secondary coach and a Hall of Fame defensive back. He helped me to take off. He told me he could get me to a Pro Bowl level and he did.
What did he do to help you?
Some guys need someone to tell them to play and don’t worry. He always told us, sometimes you get the bear, and sometimes the bear gets you. What he meant was that you will make mistakes, but you’ll learn from those mistakes. That’s how you get better, and I needed that. It took the pressure off.
Did anyone help mentor you as a rookie – to adjust to the NFL both on and off the field?
Well, I grew up in L.A. When I moved to Pittsburgh I wasn’t used to the weather. It was a big transition. Pittsburgh though always welcomed me with open arms. I had family there which helped. My father was from Midland and had family there. I would go there for Thanksgiving and they’d come to games. That helped a lot.
Woodson, (Greg) Lloyd, (Hardy) Nickerson, and Kevin Greene later on would invite me to their homes for meals and to socialize too which meant a lot.
Any funny stories of your time there you can share?
The jokes were the fun parts about the Steelers. You had to always look around. Someone was clowning someone. It made us close, it made us tight and players responded to that.
One fun story was about Delton Hall. He was a starting corner my rookie year. Well, we started off tough that year. We lost 51-0 to Cleveland and 42-10 to Cincinnati. But we pulled it all together. The last week of the year we needed six teams to lose for us to make the playoffs, and they all did. We went to play Houston in Houston and beat them there. We celebrated like we won the Super Bowl! Delton Hall tried to pick up Chuck Noll and put him on his shoulders and Chuck yelled at him “What the bleep bleep are you doing? We haven’t won shit yet!”
I wanted to talk to you a bit about playing safety in the NFL and for the Steelers. The team seems to run hot and cold with players, many of whom felt they weren’t given the chance to make plays. How hard is that for a coach to “let loose the reigns”?
Well, I’m trying to figure a way to say this. Success begets success. Like Troy. Darren Perry was his coach when Troy was a pup. Darren told me it was a challenge at first getting Troy ready. He would take extra time with him. Once he came around though and started making plays within the scheme, LeBeau felt more confident giving him more opportunities.
That was the same for me too as a player. Back when I played, strong safeties were typically big, strong guys that were bruising tacklers and heavy in run support. Usually zone coverage type guys and would be moved to the deep half of the field on third downs. Guys like (David) Fulcher in Cincinnati, Dennis Smith in Denver. That was the mold then. But they used me differently. On third downs they’d move me in the slot versus receivers along with Woodson, especially when we played Houston and their spread offense. Then when Woodson got hurt they moved me to corner and I played there for three years. So I wasn’t the typical safety then.
Now, they are looking for more corner-type safeties. They can use those in those types of schemes more.
How does a safety then make that step to gain the coaching staff’s trust. What skills do they need to show?
The big thing for a safety is they have to be sharp and be a good communicator. They have to get the defense lined up right. If you can’t do that without making mistakes and missing adjustments, the coaches get nervous. You have to prove yourself to be a good communicator. Ryan Clark was a great communicator. He knew the defense and got guys lined up right. That was big for our secondary. If you show you can handle those responsibilities then they start putting you in blitz packages and man coverage package groups. They give you more meat to chew on then.
You left in free agency in 1998. How difficult was that decision for you and what brought that on?
I was fortunate that even though I left, I had a good perspective watching other older players leave the team. I saw players leave ahead of me and thought that when I got to that point I may have to leave also. I didn’t take it personally. I made sure I said nothing negative in the press. I wanted to leave on good terms – I was thankful for them drafting me and for my time there. I had 10 awesome years there.
I took the Jacksonville offer because none were even close to it. I didn’t want to leave, honestly. I was getting my MBA at Duquesne after Mr. Rooney wrote me a great recommendation to help get me in. I wanted to finish up there. I told myself if the offers were close I would stay, but the Jacksonville offer was not even close to the others.
That’s a good segue into the Bell situation. How do you handle something like that as a coach?
Well, he’s not the first one in Pittsburgh to hold out. There were many that did before there was free agency. That was the only recourse then.
I’ll say this, and it’s tricky. Mike (Tomlin) does a good job with that team and he’s doing a good job focusing on the game coming up and the 53 there now. He needs to keep the team focused. If Bell does show up, he’ll be a part of the Steelers. If he plays well, all will be brushed under the rug, in my opinion. You can’t tell him what to do.
I’ll say this though. If I were talking with Le’Veon, I’d tell him to start asking around with other players who have gone through similar things. How did that work out for them? What are your expectations and what do you expect to accomplish holding out – what outcomes have resulted for guys that did what you’re doing? He just needs to be sure he knows what he’s doing and the potential consequences.