Keenan Lewis: The Numbers, The Tape, The Verdict

Keenan Lewis broke out for the Pittsburgh Steelers last year, but this year he’ll be back in New Orleans with the Saints.

Keenan Lewis’ ascension to a starting role with the Pittsburgh Steelers took much longer than the team expected it would after taking him in the third round of the 2009 NFL draft. Lewis played exclusively on special teams as a rookie and even at that he was rarely on the field. It’s not uncommon for rookies to sit on the sideline for Dick LeBeau’s defense, but more development is expected of players entering their second seasons. That development wasn’t reflected in playing time, as Lewis played 43 snaps all season long.

It wasn’t until his third year that the former Oregon State star found a worthwhile role with the defense. Listed behind William Gay and Ike Taylor on the depth chart, Lewis was technically the fifth defender in the Steelers’ nickel defenses, but he didn’t play the typical role of a nickelback. On third downs and in passing situations, Lewis came onto the field and played across from Taylor, while Gay moved inside to cover the slot. Lewis showed flashes, but for the most part was an inconsistent player lacking the full focus and discipline that was expected.

It was quickly looking like the Steelers had wasted that third round pick. Lewis was taken in the third round with Mike Wallace and Kraig Urbik. Urbik gave the Steelers nothing because they cut him before he could even start a game, whereas Wallace quickly established himself as a star from Week 1. Lewis appeared to be completing the set. Wallace the star, Urbik the bust and Lewis the average role player.

Alas, even though it took him three years to find a starting spot on the team, the Steelers would quickly be reminded of why they took the defensive back that high in the draft. At 26 years of age, Lewis would take over Gay’s starting spot after he left to sign with the Arizona Cardinals in free agency. He would play outside in base defense and outside in nickel packages, while Cortez Allen took over Gay’s role inside. Early struggles had some worrying, but as the season progressed, so did Lewis. His play appeared to be a steadying influence for the rest of the Steelers’ team, because he was so consistent from snap-to-snap.

Lewis, Taylor and Allen gave the Steelers a new breed of rangy, physical cornerbacks who could play press coverage. Something they hadn’t had in previous years.

However, Lewis was still a first-year starter who had minimal experience over his three previous years in the league. His value may have been there, but it was value on a team that didn’t make the playoffs. He wasn’t the number one cornerback on his team and some argued that Cortez Allen was actually a better player than him already, despite being younger and further down the depth chart.

After the season, the Steelers didn’t even make an offer to Lewis as he hit free agency. He signed a contract with his hometown New Orleans Saints who were in desperate need of a number one cornerback. Considering Taylor’s age and Allen’s inexperience, could Lewis really be a number one corner and the Steelers turned their nose up at him because of their cap situation? Or does the coaching staff in Pittsburgh understand something that the rest of us are waiting to learn?

As always, the best way to find out is to look at the tape.

Explaining the Process

Qualifying Plays:
Plays that count:

  • Every snap that has the cornerback in man coverage no matter where the ball is thrown.
  • The above includes sacks, quarterback scrambles and plays where the defensive back has safety help.

Plays that don’t count:

  • Screen plays. Even if the receiver isn’t part of the screen, these plays do not count.
  • Plays where either the receiver or cornerback doesn’t follow through his whole assignment.
  • Zone plays. Any ambiguity in this area will disqualify a play.
  • Any prevent coverage situations.
  • Receptions in the flat without a route run.
  • Running plays(duh!). Including designed quarterback runs.

Failed Coverages:

The ball does not have to be thrown in the defensive back’s direction for the coverage to fail. This is NOT an alysis of how many completions the cornerback allowed, that can be found elsewhere, this is an analysis of how good his coverage is on any given play.

Failed coverages can come at any point of the route, but it is subjective to where the players are on the field in relation to the quarterback. Typically, defensive backs must be within arms reach for underneath/intermediate routes. On deeper passes, there is greater leeway given to the defender.

Failed coverages can be subjective. They must be determined by the situation considering the length of the play and other such variables.

Shut Down:

This category is reserved for those plays when receivers would have to make superhuman catches to beat the coverage. The best example of this is when receivers line up wide and try to run down the sideline, but the defensive back gradually guides them towards the sideline, suffocating the space they have to catch the football in. If a receiver is on the white sideline, he is shut down.

In Position:

This is the opposite of a failed coverage. In order to be ‘In Position’, a defensive back has to be in a position to prevent a relatively well-thrown pass to his assignment.

 

It wasn’t the big name receivers who caught Lewis out.

Wide Receiver Success-Individual Matchups

No.

Player

Successful Snaps/Coverage Snaps

Percentage

1

Santana Moss

3/4

75%

2

Jon Baldwin

3/6

50%

3

Anquan Boldin

3/7

42.9%

4

Denarius Moore

5/12

41.6%

5

Josh Morgan

2/6

33.3%

6

Kendall Wright

3/10

30%

7

Marvin Jones

8/27

29.6%

8

Eric Decker

5/19

26.3%

9

Jeremy Maclin

3/12

25%

10

Torrey Smith

2/9

22.2%

11

Malcolm Floyd

5/24

20.8%

12

Dez Bryant

4/20

20%

13

Stephen Hill

2/10

20%

14

Tandon Doss

1/5

20%

15

Rod Streater

1/6

16.6%

16

Hakeem Nicks

2/13

15.4%

17

Ryan Whalen

1/7

14.29%

18

Josh Gordon

2/17

11.8%

19

Jacoby Jones

1/9

11%

20

Kenny Britt

1/11

9%

21

Nate Washington

1/14

7.1%

22

Derek Hagan

0/5

0%

23

Brandon Tate

0/5

0%

24

Terrance Copper

0/6

0%

 

Totals

58 / 264

 

Averages

2 / 11

18.2%

*Those with less than four snaps against Lewis were not included.

 

Weekly Breakdown

Week 1: Denver Broncos
Total qualifying plays: 20
Failed coverages: 5
Shutdowns: 3
In Position: 12

Only once did Lewis face a Broncos’ receiver not named Eric Decker, when he covered Demaryius Thomas on a sideline route, while he only left the left cornerback position twice to move into the slot. Lewis played most of this game in off coverage and three of his five failed coverages were curls underneath against off coverage. The others were a curl against normal coverage and a sideline route when Eric Decker drew a pass interference flag.

Week 2: New York Jets
Total qualifying plays: 17
Failed coverages: 3
Shutdowns: 2
In Position: 12

Although it was only his second game as a full-time starter, Lewis was able to use his experience to have an excellent outing against the Jets’ younger receivers. While Ike Taylor trailed Santonio Holmes for most of the game, Lewis was left with Stephen Hill, Edmund Gates and two snaps against Jeremy Kerley. He was beaten only three times, each time by Hill.None of those plays were down the field however, as Hill only came free on two curls and a comeback route.

Week 3: Oakland Raiders
Total qualifying plays: 25
Failed coverages: 6
Shutdowns: 1
In Position: 18

This was the first time that Lewis actually looked a little uncomfortable. Against Decker in Week 1 he appeared to have the physical advantage, while the Jets receivers didn’t appear to know how to beat him at the line of scrimmage not least lose him down the field. However, Denarius Moore knew how to get free from him and he did so in a variety of ways. Moore beat Lewis five times, with four different routes.

Even though two of his failed coverages came underneath against off coverage, Moore was showing off the speed and crisp route running that would allow him to create separation when he was afforded any kind of space.

Week 5: Philadelphia Eagles
Total qualifying plays: 21
Failed coverages: 3
Shutdowns: 0
In Position: 18

The Eagles offense as a whole was somewhat of a disaster in this game, which meant that Lewis was able to have a relatively easy day despite having to go against one of the more gifted receivers in the league, Jeremy Maclin.

Week 6: Tennessee Titans
Total qualifying plays: 38
Failed coverages: 5
Shutdowns: 2
In Position: 31

To this point in the season, there weren’t many aspects of Lewis’ game that were being highlighted. However, by the time the Titans game had come around, a very worrying trend had developed. While Lewis had been giving up most of his routes underneath from an off coverage position, there was also an obvious issue with how he handles curl routes. Curl routes doesn’t just refer to those we see on the broadcast when the receiver runs five or 10 yards parallel with the line of scrimmage, they include any route where the receiver comes to a sudden stop and turns to face the quarterback.

However, this occasion was one of those typical curl routes.

Screen Shot 2013-06-30 at 00.16.38

Lewis is alone to the top of the screen with Kendall Wright. Matt Hasselbeck has seen this and will immediately look his way at the snap. Now it’s easy to forgive what happens to Lewis on this play, because he can’t cover everything and isn’t dramatically out of position, but what happens here is reflective of his inconsistency in how physical he is.

Screen Shot 2013-06-30 at 00.23.31

This play is a good example of why the raw data from these analysis’ is never enough to truly analyze a player’s coverage ability. Had the ball not been thrown to Wright on this play, it would have been an ‘In Position’, or in other words a successful coverage. Why? Because Lewis technically is in position. However, even though he is in position he doesn’t make the play because he is not aggressive enough.

In the first image of the quartet above, we can see that Lewis is in a good position with his feet set to push down with Wright when he stops at the top of his route. However, Wright nudges him slightly and he immediately allows his weight to carry behind his planted feet(second image). This gives Wright an opportunity to create the slight separation needed for him to make a diving touchdown reception.

Screen Shot 2013-06-30 at 00.18.49

Ultimately, Wright doesn’t make the reception, but that has nothing to do with Lewis’ coverage. He doesn’t make the reception because he can’t hold onto the ball as he dives to the ground. It’s impossible to create data any further than just noting who is in position and who is not because you can’t judge if they would make the play or not.

This is the issue with Lewis, he is constantly giving up all different kinds of curl routes. It’s not a major issue because curl routes rarely turn into touchdowns unless they are in the endzone and he is always in position to make a tackle. However, it is what separates him from being a shutdown corner opposed to just a very good one. While players like Richard Sherman and Stephon Gilmore can latch onto receivers and stay with them when they make sharp turns, Lewis cedes some ground before relying on his acceleration and speed to catch up. That works fine for longer routes, but not when the receiver is looking to catch a quick curl.

It’s an enigmatic aspect of Lewis game because he would clearly be much better served to play aggressive press coverage more often, but it’s something that he is always going to be surrendering if 2012 is anything to go by.

Being that he is a fine tackler, he should be able to get away with this flaw throughout his career without it affecting his reputation dramatically. You have to be a fine tackler if you want to be a defensive back for Dick LeBeau. A fine tackler in the running game and in space against wide receivers.

Week 7: Cincinnati Bengals
Total qualifying plays: 13
Failed coverages: 2
Shutdowns: 2
In Position: 9

Neither Ryan Whalen or Brandon Tate are receivers who should be on the field for NFL offenses. Because of that, it’s no surprise that Lewis’ only two failed coverages came underneath against off coverage.

Week 8: Washington Redskins
Total qualifying plays: 18
Failed coverages: 6
Shutdowns: 3
In Position: 9

Against the Redskins, Lewis gave up his first touchdown of the season in man coverage to Santana Moss.

Screen Shot 2013-06-30 at 00.49.45

On one of the rare occasions that Lewis moved infield, he was lined up over Santana Moss with Cortez Allen and Josh Morgan immediately inside them.

Screen Shot 2013-06-30 at 00.50.19

Robert Griffin III looks straight at Moss from the snap, while Josh Morgan brings Cortez Allen straight towards Lewis to pick him off as Moss runs infield. Moss is left wide open because of the route combination, because Lewis doesn’t aggressively look to slip past Allen.

Screen Shot 2013-06-30 at 00.50.42

That small window and a very accurate pass from Griffin allows Moss to catch the ball into his chest before Lewis can get to the pass.

Lewis was unable to get to the ball before Moss on this play, but playing the ball in tight against a receiver is one of his greatest strengths. In fact, Lewis high-points the ball, attacks it at the highest possible point, better than any other cornerback who has undergone this analysis and is outstanding at knocking the ball away from a receiver when he has it in his grasp. He routinely made plays during the season that most cornerbacks wouldn’t make, some very spectacular and some more subtle, but all as effective as each other.

Lewis Tips

Lewis’ length and athleticism is what allows him to make these kind of plays on a consistent basis, but it also takes a level of arm strength, body control, timing and awareness that is often understated in these kinds of analysis’. It’s all well and good having the body to do these things, but not everyone has that balance and strength to affect the receiver so dramatically. Lewis had 16 pass deflections in the NFL last year, which led the league according to Pro Football Focus.

Week 9: New York Giants
Total qualifying plays: 17
Failed coverages: 4
Shutdowns: 5
In Position: 8

Three of Lewis’ failed coverages were curl routes against off coverage, while the other was a pass interference against Domenik Hixon on a double move. Lewis was flagged for pass interference against Hakeem Nicks also, but the replay showed that the referee made the wrong call. For most of the rest of the game, Lewis was playing aggressive press coverage against Hakeem Nicks and getting the better of him.

It was likely his best game of the season all things considered.

Week 10: Kansas City Chiefs
Total qualifying plays: 21
Failed coverages: 7
Shutdowns: 3
In Position: 11

Lewis bought hard on play-action early on in the game to let Tony Moeaki free down the sideline, while Jon Baldwin and Dwayne Bowe were able to beat him outside three times. The most telling aspect of the game was that Dexter McCluster was able to beat Lewis twice out of three attempts. McCluster used horizontal double moves to expose Lewis’ lateral quickness in the slot and outside.

Week 11: Baltimore Ravens
Total qualifying plays: 13
Failed coverages: 3
Shutdowns: 2
In Position: 8

The Steelers played an awful lot of zone coverage in this game which meant that there were very few qualifying plays to analyze. Outside of an in route against off coverage that he gave up underneath to Jacoby Jones, Lewis only gave up tow comeback routes to Anquan Boldin and Tandon Doss.

Week 12: Cleveland Browns
Total qualifying plays: 19
Failed coverages: 4
Shutdowns: 0
In Position: 15

Much of Lewis’ success is based on his fluidity moving around the field. Even when he is caught slightly out of position, he can use his speed and quickness to close any gaps that appear.

Screen Shot 2013-06-30 at 01.25.22

Lewis is lined up at the top of the screen against Josh Gordon.

Screen Shot 2013-06-30 at 01.29.08

Lewis overplays the sideline at the snap, allowing Gordon to slip inside of him unopposed. Gordon has a head start here as he looks to run a seam route. Lewis needs to reshuffle his feet if he is to get back into position quick enough to make a play. Often, cornerbacks won’t look to shuffle their feet and flip their hips at this point, rather they’d just carry their momentum through and turn the wrong way losing sight of the receiver. Lewis doesn’t do that and what he does is outstanding.

Instead of looking to turn and regain his position immediately, Lewis starts to pivot while keeping his eyes on his assignment. Very swiftly, his feet come together before he takes one elongated step backwards to spin around. Before he is completely turned to the sideline, he is already moving down the field so that he doesn’t lose anymore ground on Gordon. By the time he comes out of his pivot, he is in a perfect position to play any pass that comes Gordon’s way.

This balance and quickness with his feet is invaluable for recovering from poor positions that will inevitably come for cornerbacks playing aggressive man coverage.

Week 13: Baltimore Ravens
Total qualifying plays: 19
Failed coverages: 4
Shutdowns: 5
In Position: 10

Lewis split his time between Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, Vonta Leach, Tandon Doss and Jacoby Jones, while two of his four failed coverages were underneath routes against off coverage.

Week 14: San Diego Chargers
Total qualifying plays: 19
Failed coverages: 4
Shutdowns: 5
In Position: 10

Have you ever been confused as to why defensive backs in the NFL want to use adderall? Why is focus so important? It’s simple. Every slight movement for a defensive back is like a stone dropping in a lake. It looks small, but the ripple effects of that stone can be huge. Lewis had his moments during the season when he was too relaxed in coverage and his slow feet or unnecessarily wide steps took him out of plays.

Screen Shot 2013-06-30 at 02.02.13

Lewis is lined up at the top of the screen on an island with Malcolm Floyd at the goalline.

Screen Shot 2013-06-30 at 02.02.22

It may just still be a part of his development, considering his relative inexperience despite his time in the league, but on the onset it appears that Lewis simply isn’t consistent enough/has moments when he lacks focus on the field. The Chargers motion Malcolm Floyd inside, which means that Lewis is moving infield at the snap, but he is moving very lethargically and looks somewhat unprepared at the snap. He reacts by taking one lazy step when he brings his left foot back much further than he should. That slight movement completely takes him away from the route that Floyd is running.

Screen Shot 2013-06-30 at 02.02.53

The result sees Floyd catch an easy, uncontested touchdown by the pylon.

Week 15: Dallas Cowboys
Total qualifying plays: 21
Failed coverages: 4
Shutdowns: 2
In Position: 15

Against the Cowboys, Lewis showed off his lack of concentration again when he was too far from Dez Bryant to handle a simple fade to the sideline.

Screen Shot 2013-06-30 at 02.19.08

You have to credit Bryant for running an excellent route, but Lewis never locates the football after the snap and is never close enough to Bryant to give himself a chance of reacting to this move. Had he been playing more aggressive coverage or more focused to react quickly when Bryant made his move, he would have at least given himself a chance. Instead, he again gave up an uncontested touchdown near the pylon.

Week 16: Cincinnati Bengals
Total qualifying plays: 31
Failed coverages: 9
Shutdowns: 2
In Position: 20

They likely won’t have any worries anyway, considering he reportedly gave the team a hometown discount, but Saints fans don’t have to worry at all about Lewis’ passion for the game and his commitment to winning. In the Steelers’ biggest game of the season, he played through pain after injuring himself against the Cowboys.

Lewis entered the game with a shoulder injury, so he wasn’t really affected early on. However, later on he appeared to suffer a leg injury that he was forced to play through. At one point, he hobbled to his spot on the field pre-snap, before running with Marvin Jones down the sideline. He and Jones had a terrific battle as both repeatedly absorbed and threw punches throughout the game.

Despite his ailments, Lewis was still able to be an effective corner without being overly protected by the secondary around him.

Week 17: Cleveland Browns
Total qualifying plays: 4
Failed coverages: 1
Shutdowns: 0
In Position: 3

He was a doubt before the game and only lasted 14 snaps. This game meant nothing for the Steelers, they were already out of the playoffs, so the fact that he even attempted to play through the pain is an admirable aspect of his character.

2012 NFL Season Total:
Total qualifying plays: 323
Failed coverages: 71
Shutdowns: 34
In Position: 217
Success rate for the season: 78%

In Slot:
Total qualifying plays: 10
Failed coverages: 5
Success rate: 50%

 Left cornerback:
Total qualifying plays:206
Failed coverages: 44
Success rate: 78.6%

 Right cornerback:
Total qualifying plays: 107
Failed coverages: 22
Success rate: 79.4%

Success v Specific Routes
Seam 11/12
Flat 3/3
Post 27/27
Crossing 12/16
Out 20/28
Curl 46/74
Double Move 6/10
Slant 19/23
In 20/26

What can Rob Ryan do with Keenan Lewis?

Transitioning to Rob Ryan’s Defense

If you’re going to bring in a character like Rob Ryan, you have to buy all in with his philosophical approach. It appears that the Saints are not only willing to do that, but they are relishing the prospect of the product that results on the field. What does that mean for the players on the field? Well, for the front seven it means plenty of blitzing and aggressive play chasing down the quarterback, while the secondary will both benefit from that pressure and suffer from the space it leaves in behind.

With the Steelers, Lewis had a very high success rate, but that was after three years of being crafted into a role that wasn’t overly strenuous with a supporting cast that had done and seen it all before. It will be the complete opposite in New Orleans. The Saints will need time to install this defense so that it is working at 100 percent efficiency, while Lewis himself will now be asked to play in space more.

In Pittsburgh, Lewis gave up very few big plays. That was as much to do with Dick LeBeau’s setup as it was his skill. He can still limit big plays, but he should give up more in Ryan’s defense.

The counter to that is that Lewis should also play a lot more press-man coverage. Starting off right in front of the receiver with nothing to think about but covering him should help Lewis. It takes away the thought process and hesitation that he appeared to struggle with at times when playing in off-coverage. He’s not Darrelle Revis, Richard Sherman, Stephon Gilmore, Leon Hall or even Brandon Flowers, but he should be able to hold his own in tougher situations.

Tougher situations is the key though. Lewis should be the Saints’ number one cornerback this year. Even when Ike Taylor went down with an injury last year Lewis didn’t take over that role for the Steelers. Cortez Allen covered AJ Green later in on the year. Whether that was because of Lewis’ injury issues at the time or the coaching staff’s trust in him is unclear, but either way, we still haven’t seen him repeatedly going against the opposition’s top target.

Of course, the first step to being a shutdown corner has been explored. Lewis can move around the field, or at least from side to side, and still be just as effective. He won’t ever be consistently playing in the slot, his frame is too large for that, but he can seamlessly transition to different areas of the field to cover different types of receivers if need be.

With a high-powered offense in New Orleans that is expected to be revitalized by the return of Sean Payton, the Saints won’t need superstars in the secondary next season. They’ll just need players capable of making enough plays to complement the offense.

In Keenan Lewis, they’ve found someone who can make those plays, but also do so much more.

You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf

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