The Pittsburgh Steelers will face the Denver Broncos in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs this weekend. Despite only being a fifth seed in the AFC, the Steelers are in better shape to win a Super Bowl this year than they were in last year.
A former player, and current coach, is the reason for that change.
Ultimately, the Steelers lost last year in Dallas because of their poor secondary play. Aaron Rodgers picked apart the Steelers' defense during an MVP performance. This year, very few quarterbacks have had much success against the Steelers secondary, and nobody has picked it apart since Week 1.
For this very reason, the Steelers' 2011 MVP is not whom the players themselves choose, Antonio Brown. The Steelers' 2011 MVP is Carnell Lake.
Lake, a former Steelers All Pro defensive back, was appointed as the team's defensive backs coach ahead of this season after Ray Horton left to become the defensive coordinator in Arizona.
His appointment came with some skepticism, as former players returning to their own organizations are often sentimental appointments as opposed to the best man for the job. Lake's first season on the job has already eradicated any doubts about Lake's abilities as a coach.
The 44-year-old has turned the Steelers secondary from the 12th-ranked group in passing yards per game last year into the first-ranked group this year.
In fact, the Steelers defense is ranked first in total yards, yards per play, passing yards per play, first downs per game and points per game. The group ranked first in points per game last year with 14.5, but the improvement in the secondary has improved that to 14.2 this year.
Lake cannot take all the credit, as players like Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and to a lesser extent Curtis Brown have all brought a new dimension to the Steelers defense.
The first year coach's philosophy and attitude toward coaching is nothing new. He bases his beliefs around three key headings: Assignment, Alignment and Technique.
Lake asks for his players to bring preparation, effort and attitude to complete the winning formula.
Despite being a mixture of veterans and rookies, each of the Steelers' corners have seemingly bought into this system 100 percent.
Ike Taylor is enjoying an All-Pro caliber season. William Gay is no longer hated by many Steelers fans, which is possibly a greater achievement than Taylor's. Keenan Lewis has finally found a comfort level on the field that was previously lacking. Cortez Allen has looked nothing like the developmental prospect he was expected to be. Curtis Brown has been a special teams star.
Unlike the Steelers' previous group of Super Bowl-winning cornerbacks—Bryant McFadden, Deshea Townsend, Taylor and Gay—Lake recognized this year's group were better suited to a different style of play.
While Townsend, McFadden and Gay are all short, agile corners best suited to playing off zone coverage and using their ability to read quarterbacks and break on the ball. The majority of the Steelers' current corner group are rangy physical specimens that excel as press man corners.
There was no better example of this work at its best than the New England Patriots game. Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and Taylor all played pivotal roles in shutting down the Patriots offense. This new dimension is something that Dick LeBeau and Carnell Lake would have to have implemented, because it did not feature last season.
With Ryan Clark playing better coverage, and the team's corners excelling, the Steelers even managed to overcome a down year from Troy Polamalu to still lead the league in pass defense. In previous years, that statement would have been impossible to make, as Polamalu was the only star in the secondary.
This year, there are plenty of stars popping up where black holes once existed.
The Steelers secondary may be depleted potentially in Denver this weekend, with injuries to Cortez Allen, Keenan Lewis and Curtis Brown, as well as Ryan Clark already being ruled out, but that doesn't take away from the body of work that Carnell Lake's group has produced this year.