Lake shores up holes in Steelers' defense Safety-turned-corner goes wherever needed

November 08, 1997|By Chuck Finder | Chuck Finder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PITTSBURGH -- Inside Carnell Lake's locker, in between the Quaker Oatmeal box and the black leather briefcase, sits an open schoolbook. Accounting. Duquesne University. Continuing Education Program.

"Got a lot of free time on my hands," he was saying yesterday.

Not that he is just another man standing on the corner.

Rather, Lake is the Pittsburgh Steelers' strong safety turned safety valve. The three-time Pro Bowl selection is playing out of position this season, playing cornerback. For the second time in three seasons.

Since his switch to cornerback four games ago, the leaky Steelers defense has been shored. Check out the Lake effect: Opponents averaged 277.8 passing yards and 27.6 points per game before, 189.7 passing yards and 15.5 points since. Those mark 32- and 44-percent improvements.

These aren't the same Steelers who Vinny Testaverde riddled for 280 yards a month ago.

These are three of the same four Steelers who helped to steer a 3-4 team into Super Bowl XXX two years ago: Myron Bell at substitute strong safety, Darren Perry at free safety, Lake at cornerback.

"It's more enjoyable the second time around than the first, that's for sure," Lake said. "When you're thrown out there the first time, there's a lot more stress involved. I was kind of learning on the run."

In 1995, Lake moved to left cornerback in the eighth game, replacing Rod Woodson after the future Hall of Famer sustained a knee injury. He then shifted to right cornerback a week later in a swap with Willie Williams. He learned. The Steelers won 10 of the last 12 games. Lake's peers around the NFL voted him back to the Pro Bowl, but at his customary strong safety.

This season, Lake moved to right cornerback in the sixth game, replacing well, lots of fellows. Woodson, Williams and Deon Figures departed via free agency during the off-season, leaving a crater at cornerback. The Steelers signed Chicago's Donnell Woolford for Woodson's old left spot, and plunked on the right side first-round draftee Chad Scott from the University of Maryland.

Scott sprained an ankle during the second game. Backup Randy Fuller pulled a groin muscle during the fifth game at Memorial Stadium.

Enter Lake.

Again.

"I consider myself the greatest defensive back who ever played the game, and I couldn't do it," Steelers secondary coach Tim Lewis said of Lake's back-and-forth-and-back migration.

Yeah, the former Green Bay Packer was kidding about that "greatest" stuff.

"To be honest, when you look around the league, and each team carries a minimum of nine defensive backs there are 270 secondary players active each week," Lewis said. "I don't think there are five guys who could do what he did. He's truly in an elite class."

Back at cornerback four weeks ago, Lake collected five tackles against the Indianapolis Colts. That included a sack during which he both caused and recovered a Jim Harbaugh fumble -- returning it 38 yards for a touchdown that sent the Steelers to victory.

Lake made two tackles and forced another fumble at Cincinnati, this one even more of an NFL Films special. Carl Pickens blew past linebacker Levon Kirkland and appeared on his way to a touchdown when Lake burst into the picture. He stealthily approached Pickens from behind his left shoulder, measured his steps, punched the football from Pickens' grasp and watched it skitter through the end zone. Touchback. Steelers ball. A 23-10 lead, thisclose to being 23-17, was preserved.

The past two weeks, Lake hasn't stood out as much. There is a reason for that.

"If you look at the game Monday night, No. 89 was Kansas City's X receiver, and they flipped him -- made him the Y," said Lewis the secondary coach, referring to the Chiefs' Andre Rison. "They made an effort to get No. 89 away from No. 37. When a team starts to make adjustments on their offense because of a certain guy, that shows respect.

"He can be a dominant corner."

Mobility seems to be a Lake hallmark. He played linebacker at UCLA before the Steelers plucked him with a second-round pick in 1989. They switched him to safety, where he started every game he played for 6 1/2 seasons -- missing only three games to injury. Ever since, he has started 20 games at safety and 16 at cornerback.

One more thing: The Steelers are 13-3 with Lake on the corner.

It's doubtful Steelers coaches will return him to safety anytime soon, if at all this season. Although Lake said of the possible move, with pure self-deprecation, "That's always a possibility at any given time."

And does he miss safety? "If I'm having a bad day at corner."

He had been on the move earlier this season. From the start, he took over the slot/receiver coverage that was Woodson's for so long. He also assumed a spot on the kickoff team after Washington's Brian Mitchell burned the Steelers for a 97-yarder the second week.

When injuries came to shove Lake back to corner, he lost 5 pounds and stepped into a position he well knows.

"I'll play corner because it's helping the team," Lake said. "It's worked out. Well, so far."

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