Former Steelers cornerback Keenan Lewis has traded in his black and yellow for the black and gold of his hometown New Orleans Saints. The New Orleans native represents the most important free agent signing the Saints have made this offseason. Lewis took a hometown discount to make his way back to the Crescent City, and with this addition the Saints instantly upgraded a major weakness on a suspect defense.
Neal Coolong, managing editor of Behind the Steel Curtain, gives us some insight on the newest addition to the Saints secondary. Here is a little of what to expect from Keenan Lewis from the perspective of those who followed his career the closest over the past four seasons.
Wallace Delery: In 2012, Keenan Lewis led the Steelers in passes defended (23) and total tackles by a cornerback (71). Is this because opponents singled him out as a weakness on defense?
Neal Coolong: I think, in comparison to Ike Taylor (an outstanding cover corner sometimes unfairly savaged by the national media), yes, Lewis was the weaker of the two. The fact is, though, the Steelers had the best pass defense in the league for a reason, and it wasn't because they gave up lots of completions. The Steelers shut down outstanding passing teams like the Giants, Baltimore (twice) and good passing teams like Cincinnati and Washington.
Injuries to Taylor and Lewis down the stretch hurt them pretty badly, hence the collapses against Dallas and to an extent San Diego (Rivers only completed 50 percent of his passes in that game).
WD: Fellow New Orleans native Ike Taylor has been the face of the Steelers cornerback unit for quite some time now. Where did Lewis fit in that unit talent-wise, and how was he viewed by the Steeler faithful?
NC: The Steelers have a long history associated with the outstanding football talent in and around New Orleans and Louisiana. We get excited when we learn we just added another player from that area. Taylor has been an outstanding player throughout his career; durable and brash. The thing I really like about Taylor is his unwavering confidence. He was getting beat fairly consistently early in the season, largely due to a schematic choice that had him playing without deep help (whether by plan or by error) in the first few weeks of the season while Ryan Clark sat out in Week 1 and Troy Polamalu missed Weeks 2, 3, 5 and 6. Starting in Week 7, though, Taylor and Lewis both started playing some great football. It's that streak that caused the pain Steelers fans felt when they saw Lewis leave.
Lewis is a talented, young player. He has rare size for the position, and I think he was the most improved player on the Steelers defense from Week 1 (when Manning had his way with him) to the end of the year. Just my opinion, but Steelers CB Cortez Allen is a better overall player (read: he has a higher ceiling and now, a lower price tag), and in a salary cap league, it's hard not to get those guys on the field if they're ready to play. Allen caused five turnovers in the team's final two games, and turnovers for the Steelers defense over the last two seasons is like a jug of water sitting in the middle of the Sahara.
WD: Rob Ryan will mostly use Lewis in man coverage this coming season. Did Dick LeBeau primarily use Lewis in man or zone coverage, and was Lewis strong in man coverage?
NC: The Steelers play primarily in zone in their secondary, but like any team, they're going to mix it up, particularly on third and long situations. I think he can play man, but his skill really is in zone. He has great size, but he's a good, not great, athlete. It'll be interesting to see how he does in man coverage, if that's what the Saints are planning to do the majority of the time.
WD: At 5 years/$26.3 million, do you believe Lewis is a slight bargain, slightly overpaid, or paid just right by the Saints?
NC: That's a good question. There's often times a huge difference between what a player's original team will pay vs. what the market will pay. Obviously, the Steelers weren't going to pay that. They didn't give him an offer, which is another way of saying they were going to let the market set itself for Lewis's services and go from there. I believe the Steelers' opinion of his value would ultimately have been lower than the market's (not a surprise) because of Allen's presence. But what you're getting is a 26-year-old (birthday is March 17) cornerback who stands at 6-foot-1 and can cover inside and out. He supports the run and has played with the league's best pass defense the last two seasons. Some may call that a bargain.
WD: If the Steelers had more cap flexibility this year, do you believe they would have re-signed Lewis?
NC: Not for what the Saints paid him, no. Allen has less experience and in two games produced five times as many turnovers as Lewis did, and is nearly the same size. This doesn't mean Lewis was frowned upon by the organization, but if you had two guys at the same position, one is better now, one will be better soon, and the one who's better now is a free agent, you're not likely to sign him. I think my cavalier attitude toward the Steelers' decision not to re-sign him will be tested next year, when it's likely Taylor becomes a cap casualty (possible future Saint??), but for now, I think Allen will fill the role Lewis vacated pretty well.
We here at Canal Street Chronicles appreciate you taking the time to answer our questions and good luck in the upcoming season.
Will Keenan Lewis take the lessons and experiences learned from playing under Dick LeBeau and the Steelers defense and translate them into further growth and success with the Saints? Tell us what you think Who Dat Nation.