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High draft picks struggling, little relief in sight for Steelers

Steelers DBs coach understands that mistakes will be made in the name of progress

LATROBE -- Carnell Lake has done this. He's moved from his college position and started at another in his rookie NFL opener.

If only he could teach others to do it as easily.

Lake, of course, is the defensive backs coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and some might say he has a real mess on his hands.

To wit:

* Rookie safety Sean Davis looked like anything but a slot cornerback in the preseason opener.

* Cornerback Will Gay does play in the slot but for Gay to move back inside he would need someone to take his place outside.

* First-round pick Artie Burns is an outside cornerback but because of a quadriceps injury hasn't made it through a full practice since Aug. 3.

Doran Grant threw his hat into the ring Friday night when he, as Gay's backup, returned an interception 39 yards for a touchdown and led the Steelers with seven tackles. But Grant was moved to safety in his first practice back at St. Vincent College and remained there looking confused on Monday.

Lake addressed each of the issues thoughtfully.

"First of all, I'm pleased with the overall development," he said. "Young guys, very young group, and we've got to work at it and keep moving, but our goal is to keep getting better every day."

Davis is a physical force and almost another linebacker when he lines up in coverage over the slot corner. The Steelers blitz him often, but, even though he played cornerback in his final season at Maryland, man coverage isn't his strength. Anquan Boldin of the Detroit Lions reminded us of that a few times Friday night.

"He's going to take his lumps early," Lake said. "Slot is a little different, especially against some savvy guys. But I'm not panicking, and there's no issue there. I just think we've got to keep coaching him. He's got to learn by experience and the only way to learn is to jump in there."

Are the Steelers locked into this move?

"Well, we're never locked into anything," Lake said. "But you know he's in there and we're going to see how he participates. If it -- obviously like any position -- is not working out, we'll have to make a move. But you've got to give these young guys a chance to grow. And in order to grow they've got to be able to make mistakes and feel like they're not going to get their head cut off every time they make a mistake."

That means it's sink or swim with Davis at the all-important third-down position because even if he doesn't improve, Burns isn't close to being ready to push Gay inside.

"It's going to be a process," Lake said of Burns. "Artie's been trying to overcome an injury and we just need to make sure that we're smart with that. It's just good to see him out here to get a little individual time and do some things and then hopefully we can build upon that and he can be out here full-time."

Burns did work Monday with the rest of the cornerbacks on technique work. He then joined the second-team defense to cover Antonio Brown twice in the "Seven Shots" two-point conversion period.

Burns looked better covering Brown in the smaller spaces Monday than he did the day he was injured, the day Brown repeatedly burned him in the deep spaces of an open field. But after Seven Shots, Burns went over to the far field to rehab with Bud Dupree and Jarvis Jones, a triumvirate of three No. 1 defensive draft picks.

The only other potential outside cornerback prospect -- considering Donald Washington didn't take any defensive snaps in the opener, Al-Hajj Shabazz is a size/speed first-year project out of West Chester State, and Kevin White was just signed off the street last week -- is Grant. And last year's fourth-round draft pick played well but was suddenly moved to safety.

Of course, Grant certainly looked like a solid safety prospect with his physical style of play against the Lions.

"He tackles well. Doran does tackle well," Lake said. "And he did improve. He's been improving ever since we got him. This is a progression for Doran to keep moving in the right direction."

But, why now? Why move him late in training camp?

"It's something we talked about with him for quite a while," Lake said. "We're giving him bite-sized pieces. We're not making it super tough, and he did well today."

When he was a Pro Bowl player on those great Blitzburgh defenses, Lake was always one cool customer. So while the media panics about the lack of improvement in one of the league's worst secondaries last season, Lake once again remains calm.

"You know, I could give you good media talk," he said. "But I've played it and know how guys progress in this process. It's like anything: If you're new, you're new to the system, everything is brand new, you're going to make a ton of mistakes. You've got to be able to let guys grow and earn those stripes in training camp so they can have some kind of experience they can take with them to the start of the season and say, 'Ah, I've seen that before,' or, 'That got me. I'm not going to let that get me again.' That's just part of the growing process.

"It's like taking a kid to elementary school and they're learning their ABCs. They're going to mess that up until they get it right. Once they get it right, they got it."

NOTES -- The NFL on Monday warned Steelers linebacker James Harrison and three other players (Clay Matthews, Mike Neal, Julius Peppers) that if they don't comply with their interview request by Aug. 25, they will be suspended until they do comply. The league is reacting to a retracted off-the-record claim in a story by a now-defunct network that those players had taken performance-enhancing drugs. Harrison has vehemently denied the claim and told the NFL he won't dignify the story with a flight to New York for the interview. ... The Steelers signed OLB Jermauria Rasco (LSU) and released long snapper Matt Dooley. ... Joining Burns, Jones and Dupree on the sidelines with injuries Monday were OTs Marcus Gilbert and Jerald Hawkins, DT L.T. Walton, OLB Anthony Chickillo and QB Bruce Gradkowski. None of the injuries except Gradkowski's appear to be serious. Mike Tomlin said Gradkowski's recovery would take weeks.


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