Former Steeler Rod Woodson, left, chats with Troy Polamalu and defensive backs coach Carnell Lake in practice Friday at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe. Rod Woodson is at training camp as a coaching intern.
By Ray Fittipaldo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pro Football Hall of Famer Rod Woodson is a coaching intern with the Steelers at training camp and knows better than nearly anyone that age is only a number. He won a Super Bowl at 35 and started in another at 37.
Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake knows, too. A Steelers teammate of Woodson's in the 1980s and 1990s, Lake played until he was 34 and made a Pro Bowl at 32.
So, when there is talk about the aging Steelers secondary, with three starters over 30, Lake doesn't bat an eye.
Over 30 might be AARP status in the NFL, but Lake is a big believer that the combined 33 years of NFL experience among the four starters in the secondary is invaluable if they can stay healthy.
"I always felt really good, at the top of my game the older I was," said Lake, who is entering his third season as defensive backs coach. "I got injured. That's the big problem when you get older. You have a tougher time healing.
"But, if you're healthy, the experience that you have, you make up in that area what you might lose physically. You might lose a step, but you're two steps ahead mentally. All in all, you can make a lot of plays just like Rod did when he got older. You get better anticipating routes, making plays, picking balls."
Of course, injuries are a great concern with the Steelers defensive backs. Every starter missed at least one game last season. Strong safety Troy Polamalu, 32, missed nine games with a nagging calf injury. He missed two games with an Achilles injury in 2010 and 11 games in 2009 because of a knee injury.
Cornerback Ike Taylor, 33, missed the final four games last season with an ankle injury, the first time he was forced to miss a game since 2004. Free safety Ryan Clark, who will turn 34 in October, and Cortez Allen, the other starter at cornerback, each missed one game last year. Allen, at 24 the youngest of the group, is rehabbing after a knee injury, but is expected to be ready for the start of the regular season.
When players who have been together for a long time are on the field together, it can make life difficult for opposing offenses. Lake knows that from experience.
"Rod and I played here eight years," Lake said. "After several years of playing together, it's almost kind of just by eyesight or mannerisms. You're like, 'OK, I know what he's going to do.' We played together again in Baltimore [in 2001] and it didn't drop off when we went there. It was great.
"I think Ike and Troy are the same way. You put Ryan Clark in the mix as well. Those three being together for a long time makes my job easy, and it really helps the younger guys because they can see the things you can do with this defense."
Taylor and Polamalu are entering their 11th season together. They came to the Steelers in the same draft class in 2003. Polamalu was the first-round pick and Taylor a fourth-round pick.
Clark is entering his eighth season with the Steelers and reserve cornerback William Gay, starting now in place of Allen, is in his sixth year with the Steelers.
Taylor has a simple response when he hears talk that the secondary is old and, perhaps, washed up. He points to statistics. The Steelers ranked No. 1 in pass defense last season, with opponents averaging just 185.2 yards per game.
"How many times are people going to keep saying we're old when we keep being No. 1 in pass defense, you know?" Taylor said. "You want us to try to get to zero? Go from No. 1 to No. zero? I guess we can try to do that.
"That's a good problem to have, especially nowadays with the rule changes and the league and the ability of these receivers. That's a great problem. Every time they keep saying we're old, we're going to keep shooting for No. 1."
Having Lake as a full-time mentor and Woodson for a month as a confidant is something Taylor and the other members of the secondary have relished. Taylor and Polamalu have played in three Super Bowls and Clark two, but they've been eager to get pointers from members of the Blitzburgh defense.
"Every time Rod and coach Lake talk to me, I soak it all in," Taylor said. "You have a Hall of Famer in Rod Woodson. You got coach Lake who was up for league MVP the time Brett Favre won it. And you have a Hall of Famer in coach [Dick] LeBeau. So, when any of those three guys talk, I'm all ears."