In the coming weeks, cornerback Keenan Lewis will compete for a starting job with the New Orleans Saints, his hometown NFL franchise.
The competition battle against incumbents Jabari Greer, Patrick Robinson and others in the secondary will showcase a trait which former Pittsburgh Steelers teammates have known for years: Lewis doesn’t like to lose.
It’s a message they shared last week at the 10th annual Face Me Ike Football Camp at the Arden Cahill Academy in Gretna.
“As far as having confidence, he’s got a whole lot of that. That’s just part of growing up in New Orleans,” said Ike Taylor, also a New Orleans native who paired with Lewis last season to give Pittsburgh the best defense in the NFL. Approximately 200 kids participated in the football clinic.
“Second place didn’t matter. It’s kind of like that movie (‘Talladega Nights’), the (character) Ricky Bobby statement: ‘If you ain’t first, you’re last.’ And that’s the kind of mentality he has.”
Lewis, a former O. Perry Walker standout, strives to be first — the best — even on a Saints defense which is coming off a disastrous season.
“He’s a fierce competitor,” Pittsburgh cornerback Curtis Brown said of Lewis, who in Pittsburgh earned the nickname, “K-Lew.”
“He competes out there every day at practice. That’s one thing that we all know about him. Just a great athlete and great competitor.”
Last season, the Saints missed the playoffs because of their defensive miscues, which ranged from a lack of gap control on the line of scrimmage to missed tackles in the secondary.
The defense allowed an NFL-record 7,042 yards during the regular season. The secondary, also manned by safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper, surrendered 292.6 yards per game.
This offseason, the Saints, strapped by salary cap issues, drafted safety Kenny Vaccaro out of Texas, hired a new defensive coordinator in Rob Ryan and implemented his 3-4 scheme while also signing two free agents, including Lewis.
“Keenan is an extremely hard worker,” said Pittsburgh cornerback Cortez Allen, who also participated in Taylor’s camp. Had Lewis re-signed with Pittsburgh, he and Allen would have competed for the position.
“He’s very serious about what he does,” Allen continued. “He puts a lot of work into what he does as far as film study, making sure he’s prepared for each game. I learned a lot from him about preparation. He’s very dedicated to what we do as cornerbacks and professional athletes.”
After spending his first four NFL seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Lewis signed a five-year, $26 million deal this offseason to bring him back home. The other free-agent signee, outside linebacker Victor Butler, tore his anterior cruciate ligament and is expected to miss most of the season — if not the entire season.
Lewis’ rise with the Steelers started slowly. After being selected by the Steelers in the third round of the 2009 NFL draft, he played in just four games as a rookie. By 2011, he appeared in all 16 games in the regular season and the following season earned his first starting job.
Lewis finished last season with 56 tackles, part of a Pittsburgh defense which held opposing offenses to an NFL-low 275.8 yards per game.
Now, the Saints need Lewis to stop the big plays that ruined secondary one season earlier. Sounds like a job Lewis is ready to handle, Taylor said.
“He knows the game, and he understands the highly-competitive nature,” Taylor said. “Anything you want to compete at. And that’s what you need, that drive at cornerback at our level.”