In the next few days it is likely that starting CB and UFA William Gay will make his decision to either stay in cash-strapped Pittsburgh or go somewhere else for a more lucrative Free-Agent deal. In the event that Gay goes somewhere else, his departure from Pittsburgh would inevitably give one Steelers’ CB in particular a golden opportunity to step-up and contribute at a high level: Keenan Lewis.
2009-2011: A Roller-Coaster Career
Keenan Lewis has had himself quite the roller-coaster of a career in his 3 seasons with the Steelers up to this point. Drafted in the 3rd Round out of Oregon State in 2009, the tall, physical Lewis was thought to be a significant contributor for the Steelers early in his career. Unfortunately for Lewis, inconsistent on-field play, injuries, and his negative attitude at times have all gotten in the way of him emerging as a full-time starter for the Steelers.
In 2009, Lewis sustained a back injury and only played a total of 4 games his Rookie season. Not a lot of playing time, but most Steeler Rookies on the Defensive side of the ball spend most of their first years’ riding the pine. In 2010 though, Lewis was expected to turn the proverbial corner and start contributing at a higher level. However, Lewis played in only 9 games, and he also blew his biggest chance to earn more playing time in a preseason game in Denver with Bryant McFadden sidelined due to injury. For those of you that remember, Lewis played lousy, committed idiotic penalties, and even broke a mirror in the locker room after the game. Afterwards, Lewis really never was himself, and Tomlin and the Coaching Staff relegated him to Special Teams duty for most of his sophomore campaign.
In his first two seasons combined, Lewis’ career stat line read: 12 Tackles, 13 Games, and the window for his career in Pittsburgh appeared to be closed heading into 2011. In fact, last preseason, Lewis wasn’t even a sure bet to make the roster. Last August, Lewis faced some stiff competition from both Crezdon Butler and Donovan Warren, until he eventually held both of them off and made the regular season roster.
Last season however, things began to click for Lewis, and he played the best football of his three year career. Lewis rose up the depth chart to the #3 CB spot, and played some consistent football in Nickel and Dime packages while he suited up in all 16 games. Overall, Lewis emerged as a reliable option behind Ike Taylor and William Gay, and contributed 37 Tackles, 6 Passes Defended, plus 1 game-sealing INT against the Chiefs in a Sunday Night win. While Lewis is still developing as a player, his improvement from 2010 to 2011 in all aspects of the game (especially pass coverage) was encouraging to see, and said improvement should be a solid foundation for him to build upon in 2012.
2012 and Beyond:
If Gay does leave, Lewis will be the de-facto #2 CB behind Ike Taylor when the Steelers head into Training Camp. Coming off of a season of improvement into a contract year, it will be crucial for Lewis to parlay last season’s positives into an even better 2012. Having a spot at the top of the depth chart will mean more reps with the 1st Team for Lewis, and the more reps with the 1st Team will mean more opportunities for Lewis to keep improving as a player, and most importantly the more chances for Lewis to prove his worth to Colbert and Co.. Thus, Lewis must be ready to take on any and all comers which desire to take playing time away from him and in turn take away reps from his continuing development.
Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen are likely going to have some more playing time on the Defensive side of the ball this season, and I am really excited to see how much these guys have improved over a season and full off-season of workouts. Both Brown and Allen enjoyed terrific Rookie seasons on the Special Teams coverage units, and put their athletic prowess and hustle on display to the delight of many Steelers fans such as myself. While I believe that Brown and Allen are still a year away from competing for starting roles, they still should see some more snaps on the Defensive side of the ball in Nickel and Dime packages. Thus, Lewis can ill-afford to let these guys gain any sort of advantage and take playing time away from him if they appear ready to take snaps with the 1st team, especially in something as meaningful as a contract season.
2012 will be Lewis’ audition for not only the rest of the N.F.L., but for the Steelers as well. With his contract set to expire after the season ends, Lewis needs 2012 to be the year he establishes himself as a consistent NFL Corner before he hits open market. If Lewis proves his worth over the course of a full season, Colbert and Co. should be willing to sign him to a second contract. And even if Lewis does not decide to re-sign with the Steelers (or they choose not to re-sign him), he will still need to put out as much good tape as possible to garner the most possible interest from other organizations.
I personally would like nothing more than to see Lewis finally “put it all together” next season, stay injury-free, and play some overall consistent football for the Steelers. The talent for him is there, and flashes showed last season for the former 3rd Round pick. While Ike Taylor is the #1 guy on the roster, he is entering his early-mid 30’s, and he will not be around forever. Having a late-bloomer like Lewis step up (along with Brown and Allen in a year or two) would give this team three big and physical guys to combat the opposition’s WR’s for years to come, and in turn give the Steelers a pretty formidable Nickle and Dime package Sets. But as of now, we will just have to see how this Gay situation shakes out. All we can do is wait, and then hope Lewis takes the next step and continues to develop.
(Lewis’ Stats Courtesy of ESPN.com Profile)