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Atlanta Falcons Give Keenan Lewis Perfect Opportunity to Claim Starting Spot

PITTSBURGH - NOVEMBER 21: Keenan Lewis #23 of the Pittsburgh Steelers goes airborne while attempting to hit a ball out of the endzone during a kickoff against the Oakland Raiders during the game on November 21, 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH - NOVEMBER 21: Keenan Lewis #23 of the Pittsburgh Steelers goes airborne while attempting to hit a ball out of the endzone during a kickoff against the Oakland Raiders during the game on November 21, 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Cian FaheyFeatured ColumnistNovember 21, 2016

The Pittsburgh Steelers face off against the Atlanta Falcons tonight in what figures to be the most extensive exposure for the Steelers' starters ahead of the regular season.

There is one problem with that statement, however, as neither of the Steelers' starting cornerbacks figure to feature.

Ike Taylor won't return until the regular season at the earliest, while Bryant McFadden only returned to practice on Wednesday. It's unclear as to whether McFadden will play tonight, while the bigger question mark is whether he will still be a starter for the regular season.

While some people appear to believe that McFadden could be cut, I don't see that happening.

At worst, McFadden is displaced by Keenan Lewis and becomes the team nickel back. Of the Steelers' smaller cornerbacks, McFadden is easily the best and most proven.

However ,third-year pro Lewis could force his way into the starting lineup with a strong performance tonight.

One of the biggest knocks on Steelers' corners, outside of Taylor, is that they are small. That is essentially why it is so difficult for the Steelers to find corners that suit their system. The Steelers need their corners to be agile enough to fit their zone schemes while also being strong tacklers to keep up with their historically good rushing defense.

While Nnamdi Asomugha and Darrelle Revis set the standard to judge other cornerbacks in the league for most teams, neither player is what the Steelers are looking for. Ike Taylor is essentially the prototypical corner to judge any potential fit in Dick Lebeau's scheme.

Taylor is not an elite cover corner, but he is an outstanding tackler and can play all over the field with any assignment.

In his prime—reference the 2008 Super Bowl season—Taylor shadowed the opposition's best receivers and rarely allowed them much success. In recent seasons his coverage hasn't been so stellar, but his tackling and physicality, to go along with his outstanding speed, have been evident.

Taylor is the only Steelers' cornerback that has proven he can play both man and zone coverage without worrying about being exposed in a matchup with different types of receivers.

Keenan Lewis is looking to show that he can follow in Taylor's footsteps and gets a great opportunity tonight lining up across from Julio Jones and Roddy White.

White and Jones are physical specimens that would easily swat away William Gay or Bryant McFadden with their upper body strength and size advantages. Lining up across from Lewis, they shouldn't be able to do that.

Lewis is 6'0" and around 215 pounds, with a greater wingspan than any of his teammates. He has the speed to track receivers down the field much like Taylor and showed off his ability to play man coverage effectively against the Philadelphia Eagles.

However, playing man coverage against Riley Cooper and Desean Jackson is a totally different experience from playing man coverage against either Julio Jones or Roddy White.

White and Jones will look to use their physical strength to abuse Lewis on every down. Both players have the speed to test Lewis, but he has already proven himself in that area while covering Jackson in the previous game.

It is Lewis' tackling and ability to fight for the ball in the air that will be put into question tonight.

Since teams more often than not gameplan for the third week of the preseason, Matt Ryan will likely be looking to use a lot of three-step drops and get the ball out quickly with the Steelers vaunted pass rush chasing him.

This means that Lewis will see a lot of situations where he is in press coverage or he has to come up and make a play in the open field on the bigger receivers. His tackling will be put to the test with quick passes on slant routes or simple throws to the flat.

If Lewis is to seize a starting place and add another dimension to the Steelers' defense, he has to prove that his previous game wasn't a once off and that he can deal with whatever type of problem the NFL throws his way.

The Steelers secondary hasn't had so much promise and potential in a prospect at the cornerback position since Ike Taylor broke onto the team all those years ago. However, the Steelers are a franchise that values performance and execution on the field.

Promising and potential will win you bowl games and NCAA titles, but it is performance and execution week in and week out that makes an NFL player worthy to play with the professionals.

The Atlanta Falcons give Keenan Lewis the perfect opportunity to prove that he can play with the professionals tonight...

...and not just become another waste of promise and potential.

Serial tweeting about everything and anything   @Cianaf.

I also write for Irish Central and Fantasy Football Life.

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