Keenan Lewis: The Numbers, The Tape, The Verdict 2014

After four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, cornerback Keenan Lewis entered the 2013 free agency period hoping to benefit from the breakout season he had just enjoyed. Lewis had only started 17 regular season games during his time in Pittsburgh, but his play as a starter during the 2012 season was enough to encourage teams to invest in him.

His former team seemingly had no interest in retaining him, which allowed the New Orleans Saints to sign him on a relatively cheap deal.

The Saints were desperate for better secondary play. The previous year they had clearly the worst secondary in the NFL, with inadequate starters at each safety spot and both cornerback positions. Lewis and that year’s first round pick, Kenny Vaccaro, began what would prove to be a dramatic change for Rob Ryan’s defense.

Since signing Lewis and drafting Vaccaro, the Saints have brought in cornerback Champ Bailey, free safety Jairus Byrd and retained restricted free agent Rafael Bush to completely revamp their coverage on the backend. Byrd is probably the best player in the unit, but it’s possible that Lewis may become the most important.

Lewis is a peculiar player because he has the build of a press-man cornerback, but he played in Dick LeBeau’s zone-heavy scheme when he was drafted. When PSR looked at Lewis last season, he proved to be a very effective man cornerback for the Steelers.

On the onset, it appears that Lewis continued to be that very effective and somewhat versatile starter for the Saints last season. However, digging deeper into the tape could potentially reveal more warts to stain his reputation.

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.


Individual Matchups

This chart examines how Lewis fared against specific receivers. Only those with at least four qualifying snaps in man coverage were included in this chart.



Successful Snaps/Coverage Snaps


1 Golden Tate 15/17 88%
2 Dez Bryant 8/10 80%
3 Earl Bennett 4/5 80%
4 Roddy White 12/16 75%
5 Mike Williams 3/4 75%
6 Doug Baldwin 3/4 75%
7 Anquan Boldin 8/11 73%
8 Vincent Jackson 6/9 67%
9 Mike Wallace 3/5 60%
10 Aaron Dobson 3/5 60%
11 DeSean Jackson 4/7 57%
12 Steve Smith 7/13 54%
13 Kevin Ogletree 3/6 50%

Weekly Breakdown

Week 1: Atlanta Falcons
Total Qualifying Plays: 8
Failed Coverages: 4
Shutdowns: 1
In Position: 3

The first eight games of Lewis’ season were very bland and uneventful for the most part. Little could really be learned about him because he wasn’t being stressed in coverage. Lewis played a lot of zone under Ryan throughout the 2013 season, but while playing zone coverage is still important, it’s hard to learn much about a player when he is consistently given very simple assignments.

Lewis regularly sat in the flat or only had to worry about the deep sideline routes. He wasn’t following receivers around the field or playing aggressive coverage from the line of scrimmage on a regular basis.

In Week 1, Lewis primarily covered Roddy White. White is a good receiver, but he was clearly injured last season and at his age it was impossible for him to play through that injury without basically becoming a decoy. He faced White four times and Julio Jones twice. Each player had a 50 percent success rate against him.

On the other two snaps of the game, Harry Douglas came free underneath against off coverage on a curl route, while Levine Toilolo was shut down when Lewis used his strength to establish and hold a position that took away the tight end’s in route.

Week 2: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Total Qualifying Plays: 12
Failed Coverages: 5
Shutdowns: 0
In Position: 7

During his time in Pittsburgh, Lewis played both press and off coverage. However, in New Orleans he appeared to be very uncomfortable and unsure of himself in off coverage. He improved as the season went on, so this may simply have been an adjustment period in a new system, but he never appeared to regain the comfort he had shown in Pittsburgh.

Lewis took a long time to gain the trust of the Steelers coaching staff, so this probably shouldn’t be considered a surprise.

Kevin Ogletree scored the first touchdown of the season against Lewis in this game. The play saw Lewis playing in off coverage and he was too hesitant to get to the receiver when he ran a shallow in route. The play was well-designed because the route combinations made it tough on Lewis, but he needed to plant his foot and drive on the ball as soon as the receiver broke infield.

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He may not have prevented the reception, but he could have prevented the touchdown.

Despite the fact that Vincent Jackson is clearly the Buccaneers’ best receiver, Lewis had more trouble with the veteran journeyman Ogletree. That is because of Lewis’ skill set. Lewis doesn’t move well laterally. He never has.

His lack of quickness can be exposed in these situations and in zone coverage particularly. While Lewis is a competent zone cornerback, he is limited in what the defense can ask him to do because he doesn’t have great quickness or great awareness. His discipline and positioning makes him effective.

Discipline and positioning is less helpful when playing press man coverage though.

Ogletree highlighted this late in the fourth quarter, when he destroyed Lewis with his release from the line of scrimmage. Lewis tried to jam the receiver with his hands at the line, but he allowed his weight to carry him forward because he couldn’t move his feet quick enough to mirror Ogletree’s subtle fake.

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Week 3: Arizona Cardinals
Total Qualifying Plays: 8
Failed Coverages: 2
Shutdowns: 1
In Position: 5

This was an impressive game for Lewis. It was highlighted by a late interception when he undercut a seam route in zone coverage. In truth it was a terrible decision and throw from Palmer that made it easy for the cornerback, but he still had to make the play.

Lewis was penalized in coverage working against Jaron Brown down the sideline, before Larry Fitzgerald made an excellent reception against tight coverage.

During the 2012 season, Lewis had over 20 pass deflections. Racking up that many pass deflections is impressive, but the number alone doesn’t do justice to what Lewis was able to do. A large percentage of Lewis’ pass deflections came in tight coverage/contested catch situations when he needed to perfectly time his punch and use his strength to hold his position against bigger receivers.

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This league is full of receivers who can win at the catch point now and Fitzgerald is as good as anyone when he is on form.

While losing out in this situation isn’t a major negative for Lewis, it is indicative of how his season went in that regard. He saw fewer opportunities to knock the ball away from receivers because his coverage wasn’t as good in 2013, but he also didn’t maximise the opportunities he did receive.

Week 4: Miami Dolphins
Total Qualifying Plays: 5
Failed Coverages: 2
Shutdowns: 0
In Position: 3

Lewis only covered Mike Wallace on qualifying man coverage plays in this game. Wallace and Lewis are best friends who played together in Pittsburgh. That familiarity didn’t give either player an obvious advantage though.

Wallace highlighted Lewis’ lack of quickness at the line of scrimmage again.

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His hesitation to sell the sideline route before working across the middle of the field on the shallow crossing route completely took Lewis out of the play. The pass rush covered Lewis’ mistake, as Ryan Tannehill was quickly swallowed up by the pocket.

While Lewis’ quickness was clearly an issue early in the year, he was able to be relatively successful against Wallace because of his long speed.

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Again, Lewis loses initially in this route because of his quickness, but because of the depth of this crossing route, he has an opportunity to recover his position. The play ends quickly, but Lewis was in position to challenge any pass that would have eventually gone Wallace’s way.

Week 5: Chicago Bears
Total Qualifying Plays: 11
Failed Coverages: 2
Shutdowns: 2
In Position: 7

Lewis mostly covered Earl Bennett in this game, but he spent time on Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery also. The Saints showed the Bears a lot of respect by playing a lot of zone and giving their cornerbacks a lot of safety help. As such, Lewis was beaten just twice, once by Bennett and once by Jeffery.

Unsurprisingly, both of those plays came in off coverage.

Week 6: New England Patriots
Total Qualifying Plays: 10
Failed Coverages: 5
Shutdowns: 3
In Position: 2

Lewis had another interception in this game that was very similar to his first of the season, but overall he won’t be pleased with his play. Danny Amendola beat him twice, Kenbrell Thompkins beat him once and Aaron Dobson beat him twice. He was again penalized in coverage and he showed very little consistency.

Although Dobson beat Lewis twice, he was able to shut him down twice also with his physical talent.

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There was also a glimpse of Lewis’ potential in off coverage. When Dobson ran an out route, he showed the comfort to switch his feet and run underneath the receiver before showing off his length to disrupt a slightly off target pass from Tom Brady.

Week 8: Buffalo Bills
Total Qualifying Plays: 9
Failed Coverages: 3
Shutdowns: 1
In Position: 5

Lewis didn’t face Steve Johnson in this game, so he had a relatively easy day against the Buffalo Bills. The three failed coverages Lewis had came underneath.

Week 9: New York Jets
Total Qualifying Plays: 2
Failed Coverages: 1
Shutdowns: 1
In Position: 0

The Jets played most of this game with a lead, so there weren’t many plays to evaluate for Lewis.

Week 10: Dallas Cowboys
Total Qualifying Plays: 10
Failed Coverages: 2
Shutdowns: 0
In Position: 8

Lewis played really well against Bryant, but he was given a lot of safety help and the Saints decided to directly double team him on at least one occasion.

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Week 11: San Francisco 49ers
Total Qualifying Plays: 14
Failed Coverages: 4
Shutdowns: 0
In Position: 10

Anquan Boldin beat Lewis on a few occasions, but Lewis made him work hard for any of those opportunities to catch the football. Lewis understood that Boldin couldn’t beat him deep with his speed, so he dared him to try by being very aggressive underneath and often showing him the sideline.

Boldin beat Lewis three times. Once when Lewis overplayed the inside, once when there was a questionable push off at the top of the route and once when Lewis played excellent coverage but was beaten by a perfect throw.

The most notable play of this game actually came against Jon Baldwin…in off coverage…again.

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Lewis underestimated Colin Kaepernick’s arm strength as he tried to undercut the football. Instead of tipping it away, the ball flew past Lewis’ extended arm and into the hands of Baldwin. Baldwin initially made a comfortable catch, but bobbled the ball on the ground when he landed.

Week 12: Atlanta Falcons
Total Qualifying Plays: 15
Failed Coverages: 3
Shutdowns: 0
In Position: 12

Roddy White was still very slow in this game. He beat Lewis once on an extended play and once on a slant late on, but outside of those two plays Lewis had an easy day.

Week 13: Seattle Seahawks
Total Qualifying Plays: 9
Failed Coverages: 2
Shutdowns: 1
In Position: 6

The Seahawks established an early lead in this game and it was never really competitive. This allowed the Seahawks to focus on running the ball during the second half.

One play that did stand out was one of those that was listed as a failed coverage, but realistically was a very impressive play from Lewis. This play exemplifies why cornerbacks need to be so confident. Lewis does everything right, but because of the quality of throw from Russell Wilson, nothing he does actually affects the outcome of the play.

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Typically, perfect throws will beat perfect coverage. That was the case here, as Wilson threw Ricardo Lockette open down the sideline.

Week 14: Carolina Panthers
Total Qualifying Plays: 12
Failed Coverages: 4
Shutdowns: 0
In Position: 8

Despite his obvious decline in athleticism, Steve Smith was still able to expose Lewis’ lack of quickness on a number of occasions and he caught a contested touchdown reception in the end zone. While his struggles in quickness and contested catch situations have been documented already, it was his aggressiveness against screens that really stood out in this game.

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Lewis did this throughout the season.

Week 15: St Louis Rams
Total Qualifying Plays: 6
Failed Coverages: 0
Shutdowns: 1
In Position: 5

The Rams established an early 14 point lead, so they were able to avoid passing with Kellen Clemens for most of the game.

Week 16: Carolina Panthers
Total Qualifying Plays: 3
Failed Coverages: 2
Shutdowns: 0
In Position: 1

Smith was able to beat Lewis twice before going off injured. Lewis made a poor start to the game giving up a post route too easily when he turned the wrong way and a slant route when he lost at the release.

Week 17: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Total Qualifying Plays: 10
Failed Coverages: 4
Shutdowns: 1
In Position: 5

Lewis had an interception in this game when Mike Glennon and Vincent Jackson appeared to be on the wrong page. Glennon threw the ball infield to Jackson while he was running a slant route, but Jackson had already turned back towards the sideline. It’s unclear if Lewis’ physical coverage caused Jackson to turn backwards or if that was simply the route.

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The recovery speed and length of Lewis will always allow him to be a competitive starting cornerback. On this play, he makes a mistake against Jackson from the slot by turning away and allowing Jackson to create space.

A poor throw from Glennon affords Lewis the time to recover, but even at that stage Jackson has good positioning to box out the cornerback. Lewis reaches over Jackson’s shoulder to effectively punch the ball away.

Wildcard Round: Philadelphia Eagles
Total Qualifying Plays: 8
Failed Coverages: 4
Shutdowns: 0
In Position: 4

With the NFL world watching, Lewis played the best part of three quarters before leaving injured. During those three quarters, DeSean Jackson didn’t have an impact on the game. As soon as Lewis was injured, Jackson made his first reception down the field. In the world of overly simplistic cornerback analysis, this was enough to say that Lewis shut Jackson down.

Before going out, Lewis only covered Jackson in man coverage on seven qualifying plays.

On the very first passing play of the game, Jackson turned Lewis the wrong way around on a curl route. He was wide open, but Nick Foles couldn’t find him. Lewis did use his size to throw Jackson off a sideline route attempt after that, but Jackson would soon expose his lack of quickness at the line of scrimmage to run free down the seam.

Jason Avant beat Lewis on a comeback route on one occasion, before Jackson was left wide open on an underneath route underneath because Lewis played too far off of him in the slot. Jackson may not have had an impact before Lewis was injured, but Lewis wasn’t the reason for that.

Divisional Round: Seattle Seahawks
Total Qualifying Plays: 14
Failed Coverages: 2
Shutdowns: 1
In Position: 11

A penalty on an out route against Doug Baldwin and a slant route when Tate exposed his lack of quickness saw Lewis beaten on two occasions in this game. He primarily covered Tate, who wasn’t a good enough route runner to create separation against Lewis.

Lewis’ 2013 NFL Season Total:
Total qualifying plays: 166
Failed coverages: 51
Shutdowns: 12
In Position: 103
Success rate for the season: 69.3%

Results at Spots
Qualifying Plays at left cornerback: 116
Failed coverages at left cornerback: 41
Success Rate at left cornerback: 65%

Qualifying Plays at right cornerback: 39
Failed coverages at right cornerback: 7
Success Rate at right cornerback: 82%

Qualifying Plays in the slot: 11
Failed coverages in the slot: 3
Success Rate in the slot: 73%

Results versus Routes
Percentage is Success Rate. Number of routes is in brackets.

1. Sideline 89% (45)
2. Crossing 79% (14)
3. Double Move 71% (7)
4. Seam 71% (7)
5. In 69% (16)
6. Slant 67% (18)
7. Post 60% (5)
8. Curl 60% (20)
9. Out 56% (25)
10. Comeback 42% (12)

The Verdict

Keenan Lewis is a versatile cornerback who lacks the quickness to be a shutdown player. He didn’t play as well in 2014 as he did in 2013, but based on his career so far that should have been expected. Presuming that Lewis is more comfortable in Rob Ryan’s defense next season, then he should be able to be more effective.

Particularly in off coverage.

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