Cornerback has evolved into the most difficult position to play in the NFL. Between the athleticism of wide receivers and the increasingly limiting rules being instated the the NFL, being asked to react to routes and make plays has gotten to be a daunting proposition. For this reason, effective cornerbacks are highly sought after in today’s pass-happy league, and when someone stumbles upon one they naturally want to lock that player up long term.
The Saints just may have their long term #1 in Keenan Lewis. Lewis took a discount to come play for his hometown team, and he has been a perpetual bright spot in the New Orleans’ secondary. With all of the talk about Patrick Robinson and Corey White, people have kept Lewis’s name at their mouth, and one constant about corners not named Richard Sherman (if an article about a cornerback is written and doesn’t mention Sherman, was that article written at all?) is that the less you hear their name, the better they’re playing. It held true for Nnamdi Asomugha after his 8 interception season in 2006 and it held true for Darrelle Revis in his prime. Lewis may not be at the level that those two were playing at that time, but he has had a very strong season in his own right. Not strong enough that quarterbacks refuse to target him, but strong enough that he makes the most of most of his opportunities when they do.
Last Thursday, Lewis was tasked with covering the Carolina Panthers’ #1 pick in 2014: Kelvin Benjamin. This has proven to be an exceptionally difficult task through the halfway point in the season. Benjamin, a pick that was questioned by some, has proven to be a perfectly viable number one receiver for Cam Newton. Of Newton’s 147 completions, 40 of them have gone to Benjamin (27%). Furthermore, Newton has thrown for 1,794 yards. Benjamin has 589 of those yards, putting him at a third of Newton’s passing yardage. Finally (and most tellingly), of Newton’s 8 touchdown passes 5 have gone to Benjamin.
This may feel like a tangent, but the point being illustrated by these numbers is how important Benjamin has become to Newton. The big question for the Panthers this offseason was how they would address their glaring need in the wide receiving corps. Carolina picked up veterans Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery. Neither have put up eye-popping stats, with Avant and Cotchery sitting at 20 and 28 catches, respectively.
Now, digressions aside, Lewis was largely assigned with shadowing Benjamin Thursday, lining up across from him on nearly all of Benjamin’s snaps. Newton was 2-9 targeting Lewis for 24 yards. One completion went to Benjamin, the other went to Cotchery. Lewis had 3 passes defended. Benjamin also had a drop while Lewis was on him. Newton was 2-10 throwing to Benjamin for 18 yards on the game. 8 of the incompletions were while Lewis was covering Benjamin. One of the completions was when White was on Benjamin. So, when Newton threw to Benjamin while Benjamin was being covered by Lewis, Newton was 1-8 for only 12 yards. This line really exposed Newton who, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, looked absolutely appalling on Thursday. Overall, Newton went 10-28 (35.7% completion percentage) for 151 yards and an interception. Of course, this isn’t all due to secondary play or poor quarterback play; Newton’s line looked atrocious and Junior Galette and Cam Jordan finally looked their old selves again, but a completion percentage of 35.7 is almost unheard of in today’s NFL, and a large part of it was due to losing his number one target. The can of worms that this opens is one of receiving corps depth. Everyone thought it would be a problem for Carolina in 2014, and the Saints (or rather, Lewis) may have confirmed that on Thursday.
Due to length that this article would be if I uploaded every single Lewis target in the game, I made each play into an individual Imgur Album with a brief description of the play. If the play interests you, you can click on it and I have an album of each play with my breakdowns in between.
Play 7: On the next play, Carolina takes a different route and runs the Dig. Benjamin gets himself open, but a ball thrown slightly behind him in conjunction with Lewis trailing him leads to a drop in the end zone.
Play 9: On another fade to Benjamin, Lewis forces him towards the sideline, this time at such an angle that he doesn't get to the end zone. Lewis goes up and breaks up the high Newton pass, against winning the physical fade battle.
*As per usual, huge shoutout to Clay Wendler for making these gifs. It's always appreciated by all of us, especially when they come in this volume.
Ultimately, Lewis's success comes down not to being the fastest or strongest guy on the field, but rather the most technically sound. Lewis possesses upper tier athleticism, of course, but his real strengths lie in his ability to read receivers and react to plays. His hips are seemingly always turned in the correct direction and he knows his help extremely well, whether it's a safety over the top or the sideline as a 12th man. Athleticism means nothing if it isn't applied properly, and Lewis uses his to the fullest by supplementing it with technical skill (i.e. hip fluidity) and overall football IQ.
This game was hardly an anomaly for Lewis. He’s been having an excellent year thus far, and for all of the Saints’ problems this season he hasn’t been one of them. Newton tried to force the ball his way all night. In fact, of Newton’s 18 incompletions, Lewis was responsible in some way for 8 of them. That’s a pretty crazy ratio. It’s also a testament to how Newton can struggle at times, since it’d be naive to pretend that this wasn’t a bad night for him. However, Lewis did this last year against some of the better receivers in the league, and Benjamin has been having an excellent first year for Carolina. Based on sheer volume, Lewis played phenomenally in this game, and the Saints can only hope that that tremendous play will continue.