The following is the final in a series that picks a Steelers All-Modern Era Team. Players were considered based on having careers with the Steelers from 1992 until the present. The All-Modern Era team is made up of 26 players – 11 on offense, 11 on defense, and four specialists.
When this position and the part it has played in Steelers history, it's common knowledge among football fans that the team has had one transcendent player. Delve into it a little deeper, and it becomes clear there have been two.
Troy Polamalu, of course. But don't forget, or overlook, Carnell Lake.
History tells us that Polamalu finished his career with 32 interceptions, 96 passes defensed, 12 sacks, 13 forced fumbles, and seven fumble recoveries in 142 regular season starts for the Steelers, but it's when some perspective is added to his contributions that Troy Polamalu deserves recognition as an all-time great.
He was voted NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2010, an honor capping a three-season span in which he recorded 17 interceptions in 35 starts for a defense that finished No. 1, No. 5, and No. 2 in the NFL. In the 2008 AFC Championship Game, his pick-six stuck a dagger in the Ravens with four minutes left to send the Steelers to the Super Bowl and also clinch a 3-0 sweep of a Baltimore team that had lost only two other games all season.
Enjoy a gallery of Troy Polamalu photos
In the 2005 regular season, Polamalu returned a fumble 77 yards for a touchdown in Lambeau Field against Brett Favre's Packers on a day in which the offense had to play without Ben Roethlisberger and Jerome Bettis, a day when the Steelers passing attack contributed nine completions for 65 yards and an interception. Then in that season's magical playoff run, Polamalu had an interception in the Wild Card win in Cincinnati, and then had another on a spectacular play against Peyton Manning in Indianapolis incorrectly overturned on replay by referee Peter Morelli.
A first-round draft pick in 2003, Polamalu was inserted into the starting lineup in 2004, which was the same year Dick LeBeau began his second tenure as the team's defensive coordinator. Over the next 11 seasons, LeBeau devised creative ways to deploy Polamalu, and his unique blend of skills allowed the strategy to work wonderfully.
But LeBeau actually had some practice utilizing a safety with a unique skill set during his first tenure with the Steelers, one that began as the secondary coach in 1992 and then as the defensive coordinator in 1995-96. That other safety's name is Carnell Lake.
When Lake was entering the NFL with the Steelers as a No. 2 pick in 1989, LeBeau was coordinating a defense in Cincinnati that featured a 6-foot-3, 236-pound safety named David Fulcher, who was seen as the next wave at the position in the NFL. What LeBeau found in Lake was a safety a bit smaller at 6-1, 210, but one with better coverage skills.
Check out the greatest photos of Pittsburgh Steelers safety Carnell Lake.
In 10 seasons with the Steelers, Lake appeared in 154 games and started all of them. He finished with 16 interceptions, 26 sacks, 15 forced fumbles and 16 fumble recoveries. He was voted to five Pro Bowls and was a first-team All-Pro in 1997. He also had a hand in turning the en vogue run-and-shoot offense into what Buddy Ryan later would deride as the chuck-and-duck.
When LeBeau joined Bill Cowher's first staff of assistants in 1992, the Houston Oilers ruled the AFC North. With Warren Moon at quarterback, with Lorenzo White at running back, and with Webster Slaughter, Haywood Jeffires, Ernest Givins, and Curtis Duncan at wide receiver, the Oilers had put up 83 touchdowns and over 12,000 yards of offense over the previous two seasons.
The Steelers countered with a defensive formation that contained six defensive backs and aligned Rod Woodson and Lake over the slot receivers. From there it was either a short trip to the quarterback, or Woodson and Lake would turn and run with those speedy slot receivers. It was up to the quarterback to figure out which was coming, and mistakes came to be very painful.
The Steelers won the division title in 1992 and 1994, and then came the 1995 season. Woodson tore his ACL in the opener, and seven games into the 1995 season the Steelers were 3-4 and still hadn't found a capable replacement. Cowher decided the last option was to move Lake to cornerback, and LeBeau got on the telephone and informed Lake of the impending move. The next day when LeBeau arrived at Three Rivers Stadium at 6 a.m., Lake was already there waiting for the tutorial to begin. Without Lake playing as he did in 1995, the Steelers never would have advanced to Super Bowl XXX. And in 1997, Lake made the switch to cornerback once again to stabilize the Steelers' secondary, and he became the first defensive back in franchise history to lead the team in quarterback sacks, with six.
OTHERS TO CONSIDER
Because Lake played 10 seasons for the Steelers, and Polamalu's career lasted 12, not a lot of other safeties had long tenures with the team during its Modern Era. The one who was very productive was DARREN PERRY. An eighth-round pick in 1992, Perry was said to be too slow for the position coming out of college, but he turned out to be a takeaway machine. In 110 games over seven seasons, Perry had 32 interceptions and eight fumble recovers. He still is tied with Polamalu and Jack Ham for seventh on the Steelers' all-time list of interceptors.
BRENT ALEXANDER was a player during the bridge seasons from Lake/Perry to Polamalu/whomever. Signed as an unrestricted free agent in 2000, Alexander had 15 interceptions in his four seasons with the Steelers. RYAN CLARK was another unrestricted free agent signing, and he came to the team in 2006. He played eight seasons in Pittsburgh, had 12 interceptions, and started in Super Bowls XLIII and XLV.
ALL MODERN-ERA TEAM
(26 Players: 11 Offense, 11 Defense, 4 Specialists, listed alphabetically by position)
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Dermontti Dawson, Alan Faneca, Maurkice Pouncey, Marvel Smith, Max Starks
TIGHT END: Heath Miller
WIDE RECEIVERS: Antonio Brown, Hines Ward
RUNNING BACKS: Le'Veon Bell, Jerome Bettis
QUARTERBACK: Ben Roethlisberger
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Casey Hampton, Cam Heyward, Aaron Smith
LINEBACKERS: James Farrior, James Harrison, Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter
CORNERBACKS: Ike Taylor, Rod Woodson
SAFETIES: Carnell Lake, Troy Polamalu
SPECIALISTS: Josh Miller, Antwaan Randle El, Jeff Reed, Greg Warren