Steelers cornerbacks using size to their advantage
Nothing was going to hold back Keenan Lewis from winning the Steelers' starting cornerback job opposite Ike Taylor. Especially not a holdout.
Lewis and wide receiver Mike Wallace have been close friends since their childhood days in New Orleans, with each starring at Perry Wallace High. They took different paths in college — Lewis to Oregon State, Wallace to Mississippi — but they were reunited when the Steelers drafted both in the third round in 2009.
Wallace became a starter and a big-yardage producer by his second season, while Lewis played mostly special teams until shifting into a more important role last season. They went their separate ways again last spring, if only briefly.
With Wallace possessing by far more bargaining power of the two, he chose not to sign his $2.742 million tender and held out, though he is expected back by next week. Lewis chose to sign his $1.26 million tender so he could compete for the starting job left vacant when William Gay wasn't brought back.
With two preseason games remaining, Lewis appears to have the position locked up. Cortez Allen officially remains in the competition but is all but set as the nickel back. Lewis officially started only one game last season but played regularly because Gay shifted into the nickel back role whenever the Steelers lined up with an extra defensive back, which they did on about half of all downs.
“Our pass-defense numbers improved dramatically last year, and a great reason for that was the play of those three,” defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said Thursday, referring to Taylor, Lewis and Allen.
With three big corners — Taylor is 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds-plus, Allen is 6-1 and 200 and Lewis is 6-0 and 208 — LeBeau and defensive backs coach Carnell Lake can take a more aggressive approach in defending top wide receivers than they did when the smaller Gay and Bryant McFadden started. Those two alternated as starters every season from 2008-11, with McFadden leaving for one season (2009) to play for Arizona.
“We feel fortunate to have corners with that kind of length,” LeBeau said. “We've had Ike for some time. Yet when people see him in person they say, ‘We didn't know he was that big.' Ike is a big corner. Both Keenan and Cortez are very tall, reasonably well-weighted corners, and all three can run.”
When the Steelers had smaller cornerbacks, they often were forced to play one off the line of scrimmage to avoid physical mismatches. Now they can choose to play Taylor and Lewis — or Allen — in press coverage. Against the Patriots last season, Allen usually lined up against 6-6, 265-pound tight end Rob Gronkowski, who had three touchdown catches against the Steelers the season before.
“Coach Lake played both safety and corner, and he's done a great job of the fundamentals of press coverage,” LeBeau said. “We like to press — it gives a little tighter window for the quarterback. These guys are pretty accurate up here, and we like to mix it up. When we can, we like to challenge the receivers.”
The Steelers are not only bigger in the secondary, they're also becoming more stable. No one has started consecutive seasons at left cornerback — the spot opposite Taylor — since Deshea Townsend from 2004-07, but Lewis could change that.
Not that they are providing much of a hint during the preseason how they will line up against Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning's receivers — the starters are Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker — Sept. 9 in Denver.
“We'll vary our looks. Sometimes we'll press both. Sometimes we'll press none. Sometimes we'll use one up and one back. We don't want the quarterback to get any pre-snap reads on the corners to see who's up and who's off,” LeBeau said.
For now, Lewis isn't proclaiming he's won the job.
“Definitely, I have things to work on,” he said. “I just come out and compete. I don't try to worry about anybody's spots. I just try to get better day by day. When you are out there with the 1s (the starters), there are always opportunities. But, like I said, you can make plays any point in time. Whenever they need me, I am ready to go.”
There's no turning back now.
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.