For 15 Days we will be counting down the Top 15 Greatest Steelers of the Bill Cowher Era. The list will have both offensive and defensive players, and in doing the list no kickers or punters were selected. Below is our number choice of the day building towards the number one Steeler of the Cowher Era.
Carnell Lake S 1989-1998:
Our number #7 of the best of the Cowher Era is safety Carnell Lake, who if you like Troy Polamau, Lake was the Steelers Troy back in the early part of the Cowher Era. He was a great cover guy, a solid hitter, could make big plays, and had the smarts to be in the right place at the right time. As a 5-time Pro Bowl selection, the Steelers were lucky enough to have Lake for his best year, before he left the team after the 1998 season to finish off his last two years, one in Jacksonville and one in Baltimore.
Lake also was bestowed with the honor of being on the NFL 1990’s All-Decade Team. Drafted in the second round of the 1989 Draft out of UCLA, the Steelers defense was in a transition when Lake arrived. He was a safety in a linebackers body. At 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, Lake could not only cover, but hit. Plus the Steelers use to like to blitz Lake, as evidenced by 21.5 sacks with the Steelers that rank him among the top 20 all-time in a sack-happy franchise.
Lake played right away when he came into the Steelers in 1989, and right away he made an impact. That first season he had one interception and one sack, but also showed that he was able to make an adjustment to the Pro game. In 1990, he again played in 16 games, with again one pick and one sack. His best season came in Cowher’s second year as head coach, 1993. That season Lake was all over the field, blitzing from the safety position, he recorded 5 sacks. He also had four interceptions that season, one of which he returned 26 yards.
Once the Steelers got REALLY blitz happy in 1994, Lake was back to playing mostly safety as the linebackers, Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene and corner Rod Woodson piled on the sacks. Lake though was still a big part of the defense, recording a sack and a pick. His coverage that season though in the safety spot though was big in that he allowed those linebackers, d-linemen and corners get in on the sack dance that season. Lake did get kudos for sacking Browns QB Vinny Testverde for a safety in the Steelers 29-9 pounding of Cleveland in the AFC Divisional Playoffs.
Lake again in 1995 had a solid season, as the Steelers started 3-4 and rallied to make it to their fifth Super Bowl before falling to the Cowboys. That season he took over the role at corner after Rod Woodson went down in week one and the team had limited options that season at that position. Instead of crying to the coaches for changing positions, he instead took the move in stride, and played about as well as most other corners in the AFC. Lake went from being a great safety to a good corner, and that was enough for the Steelers to go the distance to Tempe and be the AFC rep for the Super Bowl. The biggest thing to Lake that year was that he made the Pro Bowl as a safety, despite playing corner most of the season.
Woodson was back on the field in 1996, and Lake was back at safety, making life tough on pass catchers who made it past the corners. The Steelers went 10-6 that year, with Lake being one of the cornerstones of a defense that led the team to another AFC Central Title. His most memorable moment that season came on a Monday night at home vs the Bills, when on the last play of the first half Jim Kelly tried a floater to Thurman Thomas in the flat that Lake jumped in front of and returned 47 yards for a score in a Steelers romp. He also had a fumble return for a score that season, two of his five career TD’s in a black and gold uniform. In 96, he missed three games because of an ligament injury, then returned for the Steelers playoffs
1997 at the age of 30, Lake still played at a high level, as he again was all over the ball with three picks and a career high six sacks. He also returned a fumble 38 yards for a score that season, and again his success translated to a successful year for the Steelers, in which they went 11-5 and made it to the AFC Title game in which they fell to the Denver Broncos at home 24-21. His final year with the Steelers 1998, Lake missed parts of two games and even wound up in a cast on that diagnosed high ankle sprain, but he never missed a start. Other than that, the rest of his 11 NFL seasons were remarkable 16-game marathons, start to finish.
His play at the safety spot reminds me a little of how Troy plays today, and his conduct off the field is similar as well. Both men were quiet, humble, and total professionals. Both also have reckless styles, and Lake, while he didn’t roam as much as Troy does today, did have the ability to get to the QB, as shown by the amount of sacks he had as a Steeler.
Tomorrow: Number #6
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