After Mike Wallace signed with the Miami Dolphins early on in free agency, his best friend and former third round draft pick partner Keenan Lewis followed him out the door of the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ facility. Lewis signed a contract for five years worth $26 million with his hometown New Orleans Saints.
Because of their bloated salary cap, the Steelers had no chance to match or beat the Saints’ offer for their young and talented starter.
Lewis will be 27 at the start of next season and had only started one season for his first franchise in the NFL. However, he had played a prominent role on defense during his third season also. Lewis was seen as a very talented player coming out of college. He had the physical skills to be a star in the NFL, but struggled to adjust to the mental aspects of the game during his first two seasons.
When he eventually got onto the field, he played a prominent role in helping the Steelers create the best pass defense in the NFL. His ability to play press man coverage altered the Steelers’ schematic approach to the game. Both he and Ike Taylor were rangy cornerbacks with great length who could also tackle in space. That allowed William Gay, and later Cortez Allen, to move inside where they were better suited to play.
Now that Lewis is gone, the Steelers are in search of a new starter across from Taylor.
Gay and Allen will likely compete for that spot. Gay is the experienced veteran who previously started for the Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals. He was re-signed after being released by the Cardinals this off-season. Comparatively, Allen has very little experience but a natural talent that has excited fans ever since he was drafted. He has proven to be an excellent nickelback who can match up to small slot receivers or tall, athletic tight ends.
The hope for the Steelers is that Allen will step up immediately and fill the void that Lewis is leaving behind. Some believe that Allen has always been the better player, which is debatable, but he definitely isn’t as proven as Lewis is at this point in his career.
Allen started on the outside when Taylor was injured last year for three games. He had bright spots and created a lot of turnovers, but on the whole he was inconsistent and relatively untested.
Last season the Steelers’ trio of cornerbacks atop their depth chart were amongst the better groups in the league. Their ability to physically match up to all comers across the board was a strength that the defense relied on in absence of a strong pass rush or impact play from their safeties. There were no matchup advantages for opposing offenses to rely on. No cornerback that couldn’t tackle to run at. No cornerback too small for jump balls or too slow to track receivers in space.
Without Lewis, that strength is set to disappear entering next season.
Allen was the perfect nickel cornerback and wasn’t asked to match up with starting receivers. Now that he is moving outside, he will face tougher and different tests that could expose his abilities until he proves otherwise. Gay has always been capable of making big plays as a pass rusher or with turnovers, but his ability to cover receivers is below par and he is a diminutive physical presence who can’t match up to all receivers sent his way.
That means that the Steelers definitely have one weak link at cornerback as things currently stand and potentially two. One weak link can be covered with a good pass rush or strong safety play, but two is often fatal.
The short-term prognosis is not good, but the long-term one is no better.
Without Lewis, the Steelers now only have Allen as a projected long-term starter. Gay doesn’t have the talent to be a starter, while Taylor has at most one or two seasons left. Curtis Brown has proven to be an excellent special teams player, but when asked to play cornerback his lack of agility has been repeatedly exposed by receivers both inside and outside. Justin King is a veteran who has never shown the potential to be a starting caliber defensive back.
Just like they did with Lewis and Allen, the Steelers will need to find a mid or late round draft pick to replace Lewis for the long-term. That’s not an easy task.