Strength at SS

Carnell Lake and Troy Polamalu share more than a goal. Read about the keys to their success as playmaking strong safeties for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Ask Troy Polamalu about his new position coach, Carnell Lake, and what Polamalu knows about Lake's legacy as a strong safety with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Polamalu begs for forgiveness.

"I'm the worst football historian," Polamalu said, "so, nothing at all, to be honest."

But when Polamalu, the USC grad, is reminded that Lake played at UCLA, the football historian in Polamalu bursts through as if he's breaking up a screen pass.

"He was 1-3 against USC," Polamalu said with a big smile.

Polamalu and Lake are the two greats who've roamed the strong safety position for the Steelers since Donnie Shell's 10-year reign as starter ended in 1987.

Lake started at the position in his first game with the Steelers as a high second-round draft pick in 1989. He remained there until the eighth week of the 1995 season, when he began shuttling between cornerback and strong safety until leaving as a 32-year-old free agent in 1999.

The Steelers traded up for Polamalu in the 2003 draft, but he didn't start as a rookie. In fact, many called him a bust before Tim Lewis, upon his termination as defensive coordinator at the end of the season, warned to the contrary that Polamalu would be a great player, as long as he stayed healthy. According to Lewis, strong safety was, and is, the most physically demanding position in the Steelers' defensive scheme.

"It is," said Lake. "[Dick] LeBeau used to call me ‘The Clean-up Guy.' Everybody would take care of their gaps in front of me and then the ball would wind back to me and I'd clean it up. And so after a while it does wear on you."

Lake said it with a chuckle, and it's easy to chuckle now that his prize performer, Polamalu, showed himself healthy and back to speed Thursday night against Philadelphia. Polamalu is last season's NFL Defensive Player of the Year, but the spectacular season ended with a whimper due to a Week 14 Achilles' tendon injury.

For now, Polamalu is back and healthy and giving the Steelers and defensive coordinator LeBeau the signature piece of their scheme. Lake was asked why strong safeties excel in LeBeau's scheme.

"That's a long, complex answer, but I'll give you the short of it," Lake said. "It mainly allows flexibility for Troy to do what he does, and I think that's the biggest part of the defense for a playmaker. It's LeBeau's willingness to let Troy improvise within the defense, as long as it doesn't hurt the overall scheme. I think that's where Troy's been able to be an artist at what he does. That's why he's so good, in my opinion."

Polamalu, in 91 regular-season starts, all under LeBeau and all at strong safety, has 6 sacks and 27 interceptions.

Lake, in 123 regular-season starts as Steelers strong safety, 66 of those under LeBeau, had 16½ sacks and 11 interceptions.

"I did have some flexibility, but it was a process in the making," Lake said. "I think Troy is probably more instinctual at the position, maybe even because he played it longer than I did. I just started playing it when I got to the pros. My first few years, I was just learning how to play defensive back. Troy came in ready to go and he's developed ever since. Fortunately for me, and for Troy, we were able to get into a defense under LeBeau that allowed us to thrive. I really started to take off once LeBeau came here as my defensive backs coach."

Lake, the former linebacker, always felt comfortable blitzing. He set an NFL record for safeties with three sacks in a game in 1997 (vs. Arizona). Polamalu matched that record in a 2005 game against Houston.

"For a defensive back to get one sack, you're happy," Lake said. "To get two, you're like, ‘Wow, that's a great game.' But to get three, it's like ‘What's happening here?' It's kind of like getting three holes-in-one or something.

"A lot of the credit really goes to LeBeau in terms of allowing his strong safety to blitz that much to get the sacks."

And now LeBeau's two great strong safeties are together in the same room: Lake as coach and Polamalu as player.

"It's pretty fascinating," said Polamalu. "Coach Lake comes in and just gives a whole new perspective on actually growing up and playing in this defense under coach LeBeau. I've learned a lot of really fascinating things, so he's given me a lot of perspective on how offenses attack our defense and whatnot."

Said Lake: "He's already established. He already knows the game. You see a few things here and you tell him. He probably already knows it but it's just a reminder.

"I definitely have respect for him. I respect his game and he shows the same to me. So far we're going great."

Except for that UCLA-USC thing.

"Yeah," Lake said. "But we don't talk about that."

NOTES – The Steelers re-signed offensive lineman Trai Essex to a one-year contract. Essex has started 25 games in the last six seasons with the Steelers. First-year guard Nevin McKaskill was waived.

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