A team that finishes 8-8 the year after going 12-4 probably shouldn’t complain that only two of its players made the Pro Bowl. In a disappointing season filled with plenty of underachieving performances, even getting a pair of nods seems like a lucky break for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
What's more, very few Steelers players can credibly claim they were overlooked. Rib and shoulder injuries cost Ben Roethlisberger 3.5 games from what was shaping up to be one of his most efficient seasons. With Peyton Manning and Tom Brady playing in the same conference, even the slight Ben Roethlisberger 2012 Game Log">drop-off in performance that he had after rushing back to action was enough to keep him home this coming weekend.
Aside from tight end Heath Miller, whose excellent season earned him a trip to Hawaii, the running backs and receivers performed well below expectations. All but Miller finished outside the top 25 in most major rushing and receiving statistical categories.
Given that Pittsburgh’s offensive line ranked 15th in Football Outsiders’ pass-blocking rankings and 27th in run blocking, it is surprising that Maurkice Pouncey was selected. One might argue that the third-year center got the nod based more on reputation than actual play. Especially when the middle of the line ranked second-to-last in producing rushing yards.
On the defensive side of the ball, no one stood out on an aging line that consistently failed to put pressure on opposing offenses. Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons had a nice year but finished well behind Pro Bowl selectees Jerod Mayo and Derrick Johnson in total tackles. High-profile outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley each missed three games and had years that were not up to their usual standards.
The one unit that did perform very well in 2012, however, was the defensive backfield. Despite the lack of pressure generated by Pittsburgh’s front seven, the Steelers defense still finished first in the NFL in passing yards allowed and in yards allowed per passing attempt. And yet not a single one of the team’s cornerbacks or safeties was selected to the Pro Bowl until Ryan Clark was asked to replace the Super Bowl-bound Ed Reed.
So which of the Steelers’ defensive backs should have been received a ticket to Hawaii? With apologies to Clark, who had a fine campaign, the answer is corner Keenan Lewis. The fourth-year veteran quietly performed magnificently in his first full season as a starter and helped the team overcome the loss of standouts Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor for a combined 13 games.
Perhaps seen as the weak link in a defensive backfield filled with big names like Clark, Polamalu and Taylor, Lewis was attacked often by opposing quarterbacks. According to statistics compiled by Pro Football Focus, he was the second-most targeted cornerback in the league in 2012, facing 112 throws over the course of the season.
Lewis withstood the pressure, though, leading the AFC in passes defended. He finished fourth in the conference in yards allowed per target and seventh in touchdowns allowed per target among cornerbacks who played in more than 60 percent of their team’s defensive snaps. During the course of the season, he never gave up 100 yards in a game to opposing receivers whom he covered.
Lewis was equally stout against the run, ranking third in the AFC in run stop percentage, the portion of a cornerback’s tackles that constitute a “loss” for the offense. The Steelers defensive back didn’t miss a single tackle on opposition running plays and helped the team’s defensive backfield allow the fifth fewest yards on runs that exceeded 10 yards.
However, in making the case that Keenan Lewis belongs in the Pro Bowl, his season must be shown to be superior to those of the players who were selected over him. He needs to have been more deserving than Champ Bailey, Johnathan Joseph or Antonio Cromartie.
A case can be made that given the workload he faced this year, Lewis deserved an invite at least as much as those stalwarts. After adjusting some of Pro Football Focus’s numbers for targets, the Steelers defensive back ranked as the fifth-best cornerback in the AFC in 2012.
The average of his ranks in yards allowed per target, touchdowns allowed per target, interceptions per target, passes defended per target, tackling efficiency and run stop percentage is higher than almost every corner who played more in than 60 percent of his team’s defensive snaps. By the same measures, Bailey, Cromartie and Joseph ranked third, 10th and 15th, respectively.
Based on this and the fact that he allowed the fewest yards per coverage snap during the regular season, Bailey seems like a pretty unassailable choice. But do the averages mentioned above mean that Lewis should have aced out Cromartie and Joseph? Not necessarily.
Though those figures do generally capture the things that are important in analyzing a cornerback’s performance—namely, his contributions to shutting down the opposing team’s passing and rushing attacks—they are not perfect and don’t account for the broader context.
For example, Cromartie lost his defensive backfield partner, consensus “best corner in the game” Darrelle Revis, in the third game of the season. Paired up with Kyle Wilson, who was 17th in the rankings mentioned above and who received negative rankings in every aspect of his game from Pro Football Focus, Cromartie was forced to cover opponents’ best receiver for the rest of the year. The Jets corner was weak against the run, but given the circumstances, he deserves extra credit for allowing the lowest completion percentage and the fewest yards per target in the AFC.
Joseph, however, proves to be a weaker choice, and it is his spot that Lewis should have gotten. The Texans cornerback, who normally ranks among the game’s top players at his position, struggled uncharacteristically in 2012.
Though Joseph started the season well, allowing 3.2 yards per target in the first three games, a groin injury hindered him throughout the rest of the campaign. In the remaining 13 games, two of which he missed due to a separate hamstring injury, Joseph gave up 8.2 yards per throw to opposing quarterbacks. In one particularly brutal stretch in Weeks 5 and 6, Jets and Packers receivers torched him for 14 catches, 243 yards and a touchdown.
By Week 10, analysts at Football Outsiders noted that due to his struggles, teams were targeting him more often than before. Overall, his targets per game rose from 5.1 in 2011 to 6.6 in 2012. He finished the season with the second fewest interceptions and passes defended of his career.
Based on this, it seems pretty clear that like Pouncey and many other big-name players over the years, Joseph made it in on reputation, not play.
And that exposes the biggest hole in Lewis’s candidacy and the real reason why he isn’t playing in Hawaii this weekend. With only one year as a starter, the Steelers cornerback is a relative unknown among players at his position. The selection process, which compiles votes from coaches, players and fans, historically has rewarded players for performance over a career rather than for their work in an individual season.
The good news is that excellent work doesn’t get ignored forever. If Lewis shows that 2012 wasn’t a fluke and puts up similar seasons going forward, Pro Bowl voters will come around and he will get what he deserves.