It's kind of a random stroke of luck that the Saints landed a former Pittsburgh Steeler player for me because I actually have a good rapport with two very good and smart Steelers bloggers, believe it or not. So naturally I reached out to my two expert sources on Steelers football to get the skinny on the Saints' brand new cornerback. I think you'll really enjoy this feedback as it's detailed and really helps shed light on pretty much any and all questions we might have about the player. Many thanks to Ian of Steelers n'at and Brian Schaich of Blitzburgh Blog, the latter who is right here on the Bloguin Network. These guys are always very active and worthwhile follows on twitter, too, so make sure you follow them: Steelers n'at on twitter and Blitzburgh Blog on twitter.
So here's what Ian of Steelers n'at had to say:
Many around Pittsburgh seemed to think that re-signing Keenan Lewis should be the team's top priority this season in Free Agency. Lewis put together a very good season last year in his first year as a starter, which turned into a sizable contract on the open market. Lewis had an up-and-down career with the Steelers, but is primed for a breakout season next year. Lewis was drafted in the third round in 2009 and was hampered by injuries his rookie season that eventually landed him on injured reserve. Entering his second year, Lewis was expected to take on a bigger role in the secondary and on special teams, but had one of the worst preseason games imaginable in Denver (when he actually got to start due to injuries). In that game, Lewis took 3 personal foul penalties in the first half and was benched. Before halftime. In a preseason game. Lewis reportedly broke a bulletin board hanging on the wall in the locker room after the game. Lewis wasn't heard from much the rest of the 2010 season and spent much of it on special teams where he showed limited effectiveness as a gunner, repeatedly running out of bounds and drawing flags. Lewis ended the 2010 season on IR with a back injury as the Steelers made a run to the Super Bowl.The 2011 season saw a big change in Lewis. In an interview, he credited this to him dedicating himself to his career and the realization that he was in the last year of his contract and had to start acting like a professional to earn money for his family. After Bryant McFadden's effectiveness waned, Lewis surpassed McFadden on the depth chart and became the Steelers #3 corner. Due to his size and skill set, Lewis would play the outside on 3rd downs with starter William Gay moving to the inside to play the slot. Lewis made his only career interception in a Monday night game in Kansas City when Dwayne Bowe alligator-armed a deep pass from Tyler Palko with under a minute to play and the Chiefs within a touchdown. Lewis' play progressed so well during the 2011 season that the Steelers felt comfortable cutting McFadden and letting Gay walk in free agency in 2012 when they placed a restricted free agent tender on Lewis. Lewis entered 2012 with only one career game as a starter, but filled out the #2 corner role quite nicely. Lewis became known as a tape junkie and made some excellent plays to break up passes. One of the best came in Cincinnati when AJ Green had broken free from Ike Taylor and was running open in the middle of the field. Lewis came off his man who was running a shallow cross and made a beeline for the goal line where he broke up a surefire touchdown for Green. Lewis credited his film study and having seen Cincinnati run the play a lot as the reason he let his man go and went to the deep middle.
In Lewis, the Saints are getting a fundamentally sound corner that can play on an island against bigger receivers. Lewis is not a playmaker in the secondary, as evidenced by his one career interception. What Lewis does bring is solid positional play, which led to his 23 passes defended (second in the league behind Richard Sherman's 24). The difference between Lewis and the other top corners in passes defended is interceptions. Sherman led the league with 24 PDs and tacked on 8 picks. Tim Jennings (Chicago) and Casey Heyward (Green Bay) had 21 PDs each with 9 and 6 interceptions respectively. Lewis is a solid tackler, finishing 4th on the team last season with 71 total tackles. All in all, the Saints are getting a quality player that is entering his prime, but Saints Nation should beware that Lewis is probably not going to make a lot of "splash" plays on the outside.
And here's what Brian of Blitzburgh Blog had to say:
Keenan Lewis was the project to get a long-term starting CB either opposite Ike Taylor or to eventually take over for him. As a young defensive back, he had plenty of struggles early in his career but really came around and turned into a solid cornerback in 2012. Now, the question is whether that was a fluke season or if it was really him maturing into a good NFL player? From watching him, I'd say it's the latter. As for his lack of turnovers, that's been a plague on the Steelers for the past few seasons. The Steelers' turnover game is predicated on the front 7 forcing the quarterback to make a bad decision. That unit has struggled with age and declining play simultaneously with Lewis working his way into the starting lineup. His lack of interceptions have been more about bad timing, career-wise, than his personal ability. It's not as though he drops balls that hit him in the hands all the time, it's more about his lack of playing time with the dominant pass rush the Steelers used to boast and becoming a starter right as James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley started to lose their edge.
As for 3-4 defenses, I don't tend to think they impact cornerbacks all that much, save for the fact that Lewis will be more used to zone coverage than man-to-man. He's an athletic, talented kid though. I'm sure he'll be able to pick up whatever Rob Ryan is laying down in New Orleans this year.
Thanks again to both guys!