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Steelers' cornerback Lewis a study in hard work

Keenan Lewis found himself with plenty of unexpected time on his hands last year.

If it wasn't sitting around watching when he was inactive for 11 games as a rookie, he was laid up with a back injury that forced him to the injured list.

"It was a frustrating year, especially when you know you are better than what you are showing," Lewis said.

So instead of sulking during his time off, Lewis did what he does best — he studied.

The four-time Academic All-Pac 10 team member at Oregon State hit the playbook — hard.

"When I was home and when I was sitting around, I had classroom sessions where I would take two or three hours per day and just work on what I had to do," Lewis said. "I have never been a player who was on the bench. It was pretty hard for me last year."

If there was a progress report given out by the Steelers, Lewis just may be awarded the most improved player.

"Night and day from last year," teammate and childhood friend Mike Wallace said. "He's comfortable. He's feeling himself. He's talking trash. He's back to the Keenan I know."

Lewis has been working with the second-team cornerbacks on the left side all camp behind the newly acquired Bryant McFadden, and is miles ahead of where he was last year.

He showed that during the first preseason game against Detroit when he was assigned to cover Lions receiver Calvin Johnson. He knocked one pass away from the much taller Johnson in the end zone, but ended up giving up a touchdown to him later in the game.

"One of his strengths is what you saw in the game Saturday night and that is he can relate to the ball in the air and has the presence to compete for the ball," defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "He showed us that from the first day. He has a long way to go. Let's not put him too far ahead quite yet."

But Lewis could very well be pushing McFadden for the starting left cornerback slot alongside Ike Taylor or, at least, be in line for more playing time than last year.

"I am coming out here to be the best, not the No. 2," Lewis said. "I got guys in front of me right now, but I plan on coming out here every day and work on something from my game to help me get better."

Even though McFadden has exclusively lined up with the first team, neither LeBeau nor defensive backs coach Ray Horton has ruled out Lewis grabbing the position away from the veteran.

"He is one of the guys we are counting on as a second-year kid to come in and do a fantastic job," Horton said. "He is on the right path ... you can see that he is just so much more comfortable out there."

That goes for more than just his cornerback responsibilities.

One of the main reasons why Lewis wasn't afforded the chance to dress much last year was his inability to excel at special teams.

Mike Tomlin reserves backup roles during game days to players who can play a position and also contribute on special teams. Lewis wasn't one of them, thus the explanation for his 11 inactives.

Lewis is making sure that doesn't happen again. He is on the first team punt, punt return and kickoff teams.

"It's too early to tell," Tomlin said. "I like his energy, but we are expecting him to contribute in a big way, to be quite frank with you."

Lewis added: "It has actually been pretty fun. I just need to get better. I need to keep working hard and I am pretty sure it will pay off."

Lewis did have three tackles, a tackle for a loss and a pass defense in his first real game action, and that's how LeBeau evaluates his players.

"The proof is in the pudding," LeBeau said. "Are they productive when they get on the field• Are they productive players• Can they hold up their part of the defense."

So far so good for Lewis, but there are still three more preseason games to go starting Saturday against the New York Giants and receivers Steve Smith, Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham.

"It's crazy to see how much better he is from this year to last year," Wallace said. "He's just like a whole different player out there. I've been with him my whole life. I know what type of player he is. I'm just ready for the rest of the world to see it."

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