The Steelers run defense has had its problems this season, especially in the first four games, but you can\’t help but notice how good the pass defense has been thus far. Entering the Sunday night divisional game against the Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers are ranked first in passing yards allowed per game (171.6) and passing yards allowed per play (5.22). They also broke out a heavy press man coverage this past week against the New England Patriots and held the great Tom Brady to just 198 yards passing, 69 of which came on the Patriots last scoring drive. While they have allowed 10 touchdown passes this season, only 7 have been allowed since the week 1 loss to the Ravens.
While defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau certainly deserves quite a bit of the credit for the scheme shift and play, not getting enough perhaps is new secondary coach and former Steeler great, Carnell Lake. Lake seems to have single handily helped Keenan Lewis turn the proverbial corner and the contributions that rookie Cortez Allen has already made the last few games is pretty amazing. While Lewis is far from being classed a shut-down corner, the progress is very visible and so is his confidence.
According to the coverage stats that I keep weekly, Lewis has been targeted 25 times and has allowed 15 catches for 162 yards. He has given up 2 of the 10 touchdowns on the season however. Really the only black marks he has in my opinion. One of the two can even be debated that he did not get the safety help he was expecting. His tackling after the catch has been excellent as I have him down for allowing just 13 yards after the catch. I should note that I do not charge a defensive back for a running back screens behind the line of scrimmage. Looking at the same stats that Pro Football Focus keeps, mine are pretty close as they have him allowing 18 of 28 for 175 yards and the 2 touchdowns. Even using those it equates to just a 6.25 yards per attempt.
Allen, the Steelers 4th round draft pick this past April, was thrown into the deep end of the pool this past week against the Patriots as he was often saddled with covering tight end Rob Gronkowski in the dime sub-package. Allen gave up 4 catches on the day for 44 yards in total, but none of them were back breakers. Gronkowski, as most remember, scored 3 touchdowns in the meeting last year. The big thing about Allen is that he is getting on the field and getting great experience. He looks pretty sound doing it as well. Normally rookie Steeler corners do not get to contribute that much, but it seems like Allen will be able to from here on out. What a welcomed sight.
Back to Lewis now as he spoke highly of Lake today during interviews and Jim Wexell documented the conversation in his latest story posted this afternoon. In short Lewis credits Lake with his turn around and notes specifically the tips he has received from Lake in regards to how to improve his man coverage and bump skills. Lewis goes on to say that Lake is probably the best coach he has had in his entire life. That is certainly the type of words you want to hear from a kid that looked like he was not going to live up to his draft potential. To be honest, it was looking like Lewis was headed for the dreaded bust category. That has all changed now based on his play this year and Lake is the only new denominator.
Lewis and Allen are not the only beneficiaries of the Lake effect as both Ike Taylor and William Gay are also really playing well. Taylor has always been fairly consistent, but he is currently on course to make his first Pro Bowl this season and Gay is no longer the weekly whipping boy of Steeler Nation. LeBeau was asked today about the influence that Lake has had on Gay and Lewis this year and LeBeau said, “Well our defensive backs have always been well coached, Coach (Ray) Horton is a great coach. The reason that we wanted to get Carnell, if we could get him, is because I had personal experience with him as a player. I knew his character; I knew what kind of player he was. I knew that he was going to be an aggressive coach and I think he has done a great job. He really has done a great job in the area of not just the guys you mentioned, but Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown and our young DBs. He\’s bringing them along and he\’s doing a great job and so are they. LeBeau was asked more specifically how Lewis and Gay were getting better and LeBeau quickly fired back, “Well you can look at our pass numbers, somebody is doing something right back there.”
It should come as no surprise that Lake works well with young players and indeed is a great teacher and mentor. I documented the success he had in his one season at UCLA right before the Steelers hired him this past offseason. Young players just seem to relate to him well. He is a legend of the game and not too far removed from it either. That certainly has to help.
The Steelers have a really good chance at making back to the Super Bowl this season as we sit at the half way point and the chance also remains strong that it could be a rematch against the Green Bay Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers picked apart the zone coverage secondary as we well remember. If the Steelers do indeed get the rematch they so desire, Rodgers will likely see man coverage this time around. There is also another thing he or any other quarterback the Steelers face the rest season in addition to man coverage and that indeed is the Lake effect.