Raiders receiver Brice Butler with a catch over Keenan Lewis.
The offseason buzz in New Orleans surrounding the signing of free-agent acquisition Keenan Lewis reached a fevered pitch. Fans were enamored with the thought of their new shutdown corner coming in to save the day. Lewis, paired with new coordinator Rob Ryan's attacking scheme, would solve the Saints' pass woes by just signing his signature on his contract.
Now just three games into the preseason, it seems everyone is singing a different tune.
Is Lewis' poor play an aberration or a result of poor scouting? Let's take a look at the film to get a better understanding on this preseason conundrum.
I originally did a study piece on Lewis earlier in the offseason on how he might project into Rob Ryan's defense. I came to the conclusion that his physicality, as well as his overall corner acumen, would be of benefit in the murderers row that is the NFC South.
What I failed to properly shed light on was the fact that Lewis was a one-year wonder.
Now listen, me calling Lewis a one-year wonder is not meant to be disrespectful. It's meant to merely highlight that he is still developing as a premier player. I believe we as journalists, you as fans and the NFL as a whole tend to put players on a pedestal a bit too quickly. Conversely, we take players off their respective perches just as quickly. We need to find a middle ground.
As you can see—until last season—Lewis didn't really have anything to hang his hat on. The fact of the matter is, Lewis was a first-year starter on the No. 1 defense in the entire league. The Pittsburgh Steelers have solid players at every position on their defense.
It can be argued that the reserves could form a pretty stout unit as well. The team as a whole has been embedded in the same defensive scheme since recent memory. As defenses go, the Steelers are the epitome of continuity.
The Saints, on the other hand...not so much!
The Saints' offense mirrors the Steelers' defense. Even in down years, the unit always ranks near the top. The Saints possess such an excellent offense that despite being paired with the No. 32 ranked defense—one of the all-time worst statistically—the team was able to stay in the playoff race until relatively late in the year.
But one must ask oneself the question, would you take a role player off the Saints' offense and deem him your No. 1 player? The San Diego Chargers did with receiver Robert Meachem. And how's that working out?
Not all scenarios are created equal, but there are underlying factors that shouldn't be shunned in the projection process. Lewis may be a prime example of fans leaping to conclusions without enough solid evidence to support their assumptions.
Or he may simply be a prospect who needs time to truly develop consistency.
One thing I'm sure of: He has some serious flaws.
Whoever says there's no advanced scouting in preseason action hasn't been watching Keenan Lewis. We have Lewis in off-man coverage against Raiders receiver Denarius Moore. Moore is running a slant and go.
When playing off-man, your peripheral vision becomes your biggest ally. You need to be able to look at the QB and the receiver simultaneously. Staring at one or the other is detrimental to the coverage.
In this frame, Lewis is staring at Moore only. You need a broad view when you're keeping everything in front of you.
Luckily for Lewis, Moore gives away the fake by looking Lewis in the eyes.
If Moore were a more polished route-runner, this may have been an even worse display of defensive prowess by Lewis. Lewis did manage to stick his foot in the ground in an effort to turn and run with Moore after the fake.
Now this is where it gets interesting. The subsequent angle Lewis takes after the fake is a bit suspect. This is where you have to think the lack of playing time in his career may come into play. Instead of retreating more towards the end zone—as this is a slant and go—he tries to flatten out the route by attempting to get in front of the receiver. When you do this, you better be sure you're the faster player!
So not only is Lewis taking a poor angle, he's also committing a cardinal sin at the corner position. Whenever the receiver looks for the ball, you as a corner should immediately follow suit. Locating the ball heightens your chances of making a play.
Needless to say, Lewis has his work cut out to make a play on this one.
Touchdown! The Matt Flynn-to-Denarius Moore connection won't be confused with Montana to Rice anytime soon—which is a scary thought in itself—but when you're without proper technique, you make a difficult job that much more strenuous.
Wondering about Keenan Lewis struggles in coverage is he up to facing opposing teams #1 WR every week? Harthowne with another solid effort— Eric Asher (@eric_asher) August 25, 2013
It's amazing that this is the swelling sentiment towards Lewis' play in such a short time. When the local radio personalities conjure up a notion, it can have an effect a lot more immense than you can imagine.
Lewis has never had the task of facing the No. 1 receiver on a weekly basis. Although he started all 16 games in the 2012 season, he primarily played the No. 2 receiver. Longtime veteran corner Ike Taylor drew the top assignment in the 12 games he played.
This is a bigger deal than most think. Most teams have a receiver that is all-world as their featured threat. But he may be surrounded by receivers who are just average. A team like the Houston Texans has been exemplary of that.
In my humble opinion, Andre Johnson of the Houston Texans is the best receiver in the NFL. For most of his career (until the arrival of Matt Schaub), he has had mediocre QB play at best, yet he's consistently dominated for almost a decade. He literally has no weaknesses. In regard to Johnson, I foreshadowed what was in store for the Saints this past Sunday in my game preview.
The Saints don't have anyone on their roster that can cover Johnson—neither does anyone else in the NFL for that matter. At 6'3", 229 pounds, with 4.41 40-yard dash speed, Johnson is simply too big and too fast.
Here we have Lewis covering Andre Johnson as he mostly did in the third preseason game. With Lewis getting beat for a touchdown on a double move in the previous game, you would think he'd be prepared to defend it in this particular one.
Lewis' initial coverage at the bottom of this route is perfect. When you press a receiver on the right side of the formation, you want to extend your right arm to the receiver's left shoulder, essentially driving them towards the sideline.
Periodically it doesn't matter how perfect your technique is; the guy across from you may have an attribute that's indefensible.
Here Andre Johnson shrugs off Lewis' jam like he's a middle-school player. This effectively turns Lewis around so much that it looks like he's "Twerkin" at a club on Bourbon street.
Lewis was advertised as a physical corner, yet I've noticed several times when he was more finesse than anything. Covering Andre Johnson as the primary corner is a lot different from defending Kevin Walter when he was the Texans' No. 2 receiver.
Because Lewis had his head turned, Johnson's fake becomes that much more effective. Lewis bites on the short part of the double move by peeking into the backfield.
Lewis has a lot of ground to make up in a short amount of time. If the ball is thrown correctly to Andre Johnson's outside shoulder, he has zero chance of making the play.
Texans QB Matt Schaub elects for the safer throw, but it's still enough to create at least three yards of separation. On this play you can question Lewis' physicality, as well as his instincts—a couple of attributes most elite players at the position possess.
Most people are going to say Lewis won't face elite receivers on a weekly basis this season. I beg to differ. His own division (NFC South) has four of the best receivers in the league in it.
The Atlanta Falcons' duo of Roddy White (6'0", 211 pounds) and Julio Jones (6'3", 220 pounds) are on Johnson's level as far as productivity. Both are two of the strongest receivers in the entire NFL, and Jones is also one of the fastest.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Vincent Jackson (6'5", 230 pounds, 4.46 40-yard speed), is a nightmare in all areas of the field. He's the NFL's premier deep threat, averaging 19.2 yards per reception, and usually can't be brought down by one defensive back.
Is Keenan Lewis' poor preseason play a "Blip" or a "Trend" ?
Then there's the Carolina Panthers' Steve Smith. At 5'10" and 185 pounds, Smith might be the toughest cover of them all. He has Jackson's strength, Jones' speed and White's tenacity! He breaks tackles and gains yardage in chunks. He's just a terror on the field.
Lewis will be charged with stopping these four stars in over half of the games this season. To further complicate matters, Dez Bryant (Cowboys), Larry Fitzgerald (Cardinals) and Brandon Marshall (Bears) all appear on the schedule in 2013.
With Andre Johnson ripping off seven catches for 131 yards—in one half—Lewis' confidence has to be shaken. Pair that with how easily he was beaten, and you could potentially have a recipe for disaster.
Or this could simply be a blip on the radar screen.
It wasn't more than a few weeks ago that Rob Ryan was gushing over Lewis, as told in an article by Mike Triplett of the Times-Picayune (Nola.com).
I'm so excited about Keenan Lewis -- everything about him since the day we signed him, Ryan said this week. He's got so much ability. The sky is the limit for this guy. He's going to be fantastic for us. We're so excited about him. He's smart, he's tough, he's long. And he's a local hero (from O.P. Walker High School). You've got to love this guy.
In my opinion, I honestly feel we got the best free agent out there on defense.
Can Lewis shake off the horrendous play of his first preseason in New Orleans? Is this a sign of things to come? Or will Lewis replicate his perceived dominant play that got him lauded as one of the best?
History tells us that it may be somewhere in the middle.
Welcome to the NFC South, Keenan Lewis...
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