This is the third article in the series about players who will help to define the Steelers' 2012 season. The first, covering SS Troy Polamalu, can be found here. The second, covering RB Isaac Redman, can be found here.
"After two seasons of battling injuries, Lewis had a healthy senior campaign, establishing himself as one of the most physical cornerbacks in the West. His work ethic and team-first attitude saw him perform at a level that has professional scouts feeling that he will quickly emerge as one of the National Football League's elite pass defenders."
Drafted in the third round in 2009, Lewis saw little action on the field, and a back injury eventually put him on the Reserve/Injured list.
Lewis was healthy for the 2010 season, but the only thing he did quickly was enter Mike Tomlin's doghouse. During preseason Game Three against the Denver Broncos, he made some mistakes, which was not a good start. He then got mad and picked up two personal-foul penalties, which was really not good. To top it all off, he smashed the glass around a sign on his way back to the locker room, causing Tomlin to hold him up as an example of "young and dumb." Not a propitious beginning to the season.
He spent a lot of time on the bench that season. He was inactive for Weeks 1, 3, and 4; 5 was the Bye week. He was also inactive for Weeks 6, 9, and 13 - 15. On the bright side, Lewis was not on the injury report for essentially the whole year. It may not have seemed like the bright side to him at the time, but he was never riding the pine because of an injury.
After Week 15 he was on the roster for every game, including the Super Bowl. However, he only got about 40 snaps the entire season, and the bulk of them were in the Oakland game when the Raiders were beyond help, even from friendly Steelers fire.
During the post-season Lewis had only one play sufficiently notable to make it into the NFL game summaries. Early in the second quarter of the Ravens-Steelers Divisional game, Lewis was awarded an Illegal Block in the Back penalty, negating seven yards of Antonio Brown's eleven-yard punt return. (Lewis was hardly the only, or worst, offender in the early part of the game. I still haven't gotten over Cory Redding walking into our endzone because NOBODY COULD BE BOTHERED TO FALL ON THE BALL. I'm not bitter, though. Had the Steelers lost the game it might be a different story.)
This was, I'm sure, not the path Lewis envisioned for himself when he was drafted, or, for that matter, the path the Steelers envisioned when they drafted him. But Lewis decided to take his fate into his own hands. When the Steelers lost Defensive Backs coach Ray Horton to the Arizona Cardinals, they hired former Steeler DB Carnell Lake. Determined to make his mark before it was too late, Lewis went to talk to his new position coach. As Lake tells it,
I have a soft spot for Keenan. Keenan was a 3rd round pick three years ago, but never really played much. When I came on board he was like a little sad puppy.
He came to me in July and said 'I'm glad you're here, Coach; whatever I can do, I want to help, and if you have any extra time can you work with me?' And so we started working together after practice. The guys already had double practices on those days, and yet he still wanted to do more. This made me feel that he might be something special.
He's big—over six feet tall. I'm six feet tall, and he's a little taller than I am. He's just as fast as the other DBs, so how come this guy's not playing? I started asking some questions, and they would say 'He's not this, he's not that.' I decided to just work with him and decide for myself whether Lewis had what it took or not. I wanted to see that he got a shot.
Keenan has been playing better every week, and last week he sealed the deal against Kansas City with the interception. I was walking past the guys saying 'good job' and so on, and Lewis grabbed me, gave me a hug, and said 'I love you, Coach!'...That was my first great experience as a coach here.
Carnell Lake appeared to have made an enormous difference in the play of the Steelers' secondary last season, although the jury is still out as to exactly what the greatly improved pass defense can be attributed. There are plenty in Steeler Nation who won't really be believers unless the secondary can put up similar numbers this coming season against a tougher lineup of quarterbacks. But whatever the case may be generally for the DBs, there is no question that Keenan Lewis greatly improved last year. He credits Lake for the improvement, and said he is probably the best coach he ever had.
The departure of William Gay, also for Pittsburgh West, leaves the second cornerback position open, and is generally considered to be Lewis's to lose. But he has a couple of second-year players breathing down his neck.
Curtis Brown had accumulated the most special teams tackles last season until an injury in December sidelined him for the remainder of the year. Cortez Allen saw an increasing amount of time on the field toward the end of the season, and comes into the 2012 season with game experience and familiarity with Dick LeBeau's complicated defense.
It's good to have competition, but it sounds as if Keenan Lewis doesn't really need it. He has set his sites higher than just winning the number two corner position. Lewis declared to Ed Bouchette of the Post-Gazette that he will make the Pro Bowl this season. If he does, it would be surprising, but I don't think anyone would be complaining.
This season it is critical for someone to step up to the plate and not just play but play very well in the spot opposite Ike Taylor. If Keenan Lewis can finally fulfill the promise the NFL scouts saw in him back in 2009, the Steelers will be set. If he falters and none of the youngsters behind him can fill the spot either, the Steelers' defense is going to struggle.
Fortunately Lewis is smart, hard-working and determined. (The scouting report also noted "Lewis not only excelled on the football field, but also received recognition for his success in the classroom, earning Academic All-Pac 10 Conference honors as a senior.") With Coach Lake at his side, and if he stays healthy, the Steelers' pass defense just might have another banner year.