Analysis Notebook: Week 11
A few weeks ago Keenan Lewis was asked by some Pittsburgh reporters about PFF’s cornerback rankings, where neither of the Steelers’ starters showed well. He was, let’s just say, less than amused by the ranking and since that point has been on a mission with some fantastic play, grading strongly in three of his past four games, and raising his position in the PFF corner ranks to 40th overall and 27th in terms of coverage for the season.
Against the Ravens on Sunday night he put forward another strong performance. While Ike Taylor shadowed the speed of Torrey Smith most of the night, often with bracket help over the top or underneath, Lewis was left to contend with Anquan Boldin and Jacoby Jones pretty much all by himself. He was thrown at a dozen times in the game, and though he allowed eight receptions, they went for a total of just 62 yards, only nine of which came after the catch. Lewis was in close coverage all day, coming up quickly to blow up plays before they developed, as well as tracking deep in man coverage and batting away passes.
Here we’re going to look at three plays that defined that strong performance, each of which shows a different aspect to an impressive, complete display.
Short Defensive Stops – Baltimore @ Pittsburgh | 2nd Q, 6:48
On 3rd-and-13 Keenan Lewis blows up a bubble screen, tackling Jacoby Jones for -3 yards on the play to force a punt.
Simply giving up a reception doesn’t necessarily equate to a bad play. In this sequence of plays Lewis was thrown at three times in four plays, and though he allowed the ball to be caught each time, the plays totaled 3 yards for the Ravens and he made a positive impact on each occasion. The Ravens were faced with 3rd-and-13 after a holding penalty backed them up. A pair of receptions on Lewis gave them just a few yards back, and they decided to try and pick up the first down with a bubble screen to speedster and return-man Jacoby Jones.
This isn’t a bad idea on this down and distance because most defensive backs will give a larger cushion than normal, knowing all they have to do is stop the play short of the first-down markers, but Lewis isn’t playing that way.
He lines up 4 yards in front of the receiver in man coverage. Jones takes a couple of steps up field on his release before breaking back towards the quarterback for the screen, with Anquan Boldin coming from the slot in motion to cut off Lewis’ pursuit and give Jones the space to turn upfield for a big gain.
Lewis reacts so quickly to the change of direction from Jones that he beats Boldin’s block and is just half a step behind when the ball arrives, hitting the receiver almost immediately and dropping him for a loss before he can even turn around. This goes down as a reception allowed by Lewis, but by any other measure he has made a great play, killing the drive by reacting so quickly that Boldin has no chance to even make the block, and forcing a punt. Jones is a dangerous receiver with the ball in his hands, and Boldin is a tough and physical blocker, so Lewis is going against some tough competition on this play, but his reaction beats both of them to blow it up in the backfield.
Run Support – Baltimore @ Pittsburgh | 3rd Q, 13:41
On 3rd-and-inches Lewis stops Ray Rice from spinning off the pile to pick up a first down with a second effort, forcing another Baltimore punt.
People overlook run support for corners at times, but it has an effect on games, and teams like these AFC North rivals love physical corners that can make plays in the run game. The Ravens are faced with 3rd-and-inches and need to pick up the first down to keep the drive alive. They line up with a heavy set to pound the ball over the line with Ray Rice. Two tight ends and FB Vonta Leach are on the field leaving Lewis with no receiver to cover on his side. He lines up back from the play, rather than up at the line of scrimmage in case the tight end to his side of the formation releases into a pattern or any play-action happens so he can make a break on the ball without getting turned around.
When he correctly diagnoses run he comes down to the outside to maintain edge contain on the play. He is unlikely to be involved in the play because it is designed to go up the middle, but running backs at the NFL level can make things happen and bounce to the outside when the play seems done, so he has to be aware of that threat and stay disciplined rather than just assume it has been taken care of by his teammates up the gut.
As it happens that is exactly what Rice is able to do. He runs right into the back of Michael Oher, who has been taken across the formation by Brett Keisel, but Rice is able to keep his footing and spin off to the left around that block and the one from his tight end, and suddenly has a clear path off the left side. From a theoretical contain responsibility on the play, Lewis now has a one-on-one tackle to make on Rice to stop him short of the first down markers, and he makes a textbook form tackle to put the running back down and force the punt.
Playing corner in the NFL isn’t all about flashy interceptions and high-stepping into the end zone, there are a lot of plays where simply being disciplined and sticking to your assignment results in significant positive plays for the defense. It would have been easy for Lewis to switch off on this play — a dive up the middle — and allow Rice to spin around the edge of the formation and pick up the first down before Lewis eventually took him down, and in truth nobody would really have criticized him too heavily if it did happen. But, he stayed alert and made the stop to end the Baltimore drive and get the ball back for his offense. That is as good as a pass defensed in terms of what it does for the team.
Man Coverage Downfield – Baltimore @ Pittsburgh | 3rd Q, 7:06
On 2nd-and-4 from just outside the red zone the Ravens take a shot to the end zone, but Lewis deflects the ball away to force third down.
Plays against the run and on short quick passes are nice, but everybody looks to how a corner performs on the deep ball, and especially in man coverage. This is the yardstick by which all corners are measured, and in this game Lewis showed very well, despite being largely left on an island with little safety help as the attention went towards the other side of the field and stopping Torrey Smith.
Lewis is in press-man coverage against Boldon at RCB and he is able to get hands on the receiver immediately after the snap. Boldin fights for an outside release, but he can never get off the contact from Lewis, who is able to maintain superior position all the way down the field and into the end zone. At the point of this picture Lewis is in perfect position for man coverage, having shown Boldin the sideline, maintained tight coverage and squeezed him toward the edge of the field to narrow the window for the throw — but what separates some corners from the best ones in the NFL is the ability to capitalize on this position and to locate the football.
All too often in the NFL corners are able to get into good position only to stay with their eyes locked on the receiver and not turn to find the football. That opens them up to two major issues that can undo all of their good positioning work. They can be beaten by back shoulder throws that rely on the receiver seeing the ball coming and making an adjustment that the corner never sees is necessary. They can also be vulnerable to being flagged for defensive pass interference on plays where the receiver tries to adjust to the ball only to have the corner run into them as he fails to understand where the ball is dropping.
Turning to find the football is what lets corners make plays on it, but also saves them from being beaten by throws that they should have covered. Lewis on this play does exactly that, turning as he sees Boldin look for the football and doing so with just enough time to reach out and swat the ball away with his inside hand, making sure that Boldin has nowhere to go to get to the ball with his positioning.
This is high level stuff. That play is the realm of the shutdown corner, and while it is true that Boldin’s deep speed doesn’t represent the sternest test on a shot down field, Lewis still executed textbook technique on an island with no help coming, and did all you can expect him to do.
The bottom line is that while Lewis might not be confused for Darrelle Revis anytime soon, he has shown in recent weeks that he was indeed better than his early-season PFF grade, and currently sits firmly in the realm of capable starter, whose performance is only on the rise. If Lewis can finish the season at the level at which he has been playing for the past few weeks, he could find himself with a very favorable PFF ranking indeed, and outshine his more illustrious teammate, Ike Taylor, in the process.