Keenan Lewis & Cortez Allen Open Up Steelers First OTA As Starters

The Pittsburgh Steelers wrapped up their first OTA session of the 2012 season on Thursday, and while nothing earth shattering came to light, we now know what the initial pecking order will be in the Steelers secondary as we inch ever closer to the start of training camp.

Gone from the roster now are veterans William Gay and Bryant McFadden. McFadden was the week one starting left cornerback last year against the Baltimore Ravens and was quickly hooked in favor Gay. When the Steelers would go to their defensive sub-packages Gay kicked inside to play nickel and Lewis played outside. Lewis amassed just under 400 regular season snaps on defense last year and had his ups and downs. What he did show was improvement as well as comfortability. Keep in mind that Lewis had a new defensive backs coach in Carnell Lake and no off-season practices to take advantage of of what I like to call “The Lake Effect”.

When the smoke had cleared last season Lewis allowed just over a 60% completion rate when thrown at and defensed 5 of the 49 passes thrown his way. He also sealed the win against the Kansas City Chiefs in week 12 with an interception late in the game. This off-season will be crucial one for Lewis, who was re-signed as a restricted free agent this off-season, and that means plenty of time with Lake. Lewis credited Lake with his improvement late last year and claimed that the former Steeler was probably the best coach that he has ever had.

One thing that Lewis is obviously not lacking now is confidence. Thursday he was quoted by Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as saying that he will make the Pro Bowl this year. He also added, “Watch out, this is going to be a big year right here.”

Those are some very lofty goals for a player that was headed in the wrong direction after being benched in the second quarter of the third preseason game against the Denver Broncos in 2010 after poor play that included him picking up two personal foul penalties. Lewis got himself even further in the dog house with head coach Mike Tomlin after he punched a sign that was encased in glass on the way to the locker-room following the loss. With broken glass laying on the ground, Tomlin made sure to let Lewis know right where he stood with him as told the other players headed to the locker-room, “That\’s what you call young and dumb right there. Watch your step. No. (23) is playing bad and doing stupid stuff as well.”

The Tomlin dog house led to Lewis only getting just over 40 snaps worth of playing time in the 2010 season with the majority of them coming in the blow-out wins against the Oakland Raiders and the Cleveland Browns. Lake should be credited with getting Lewis back on course and the starting cornerback spot opposite Ike Taylor is his to lose heading into training camp. Speaking of Taylor, he was quoted on Wednesday as saying, “I am expecting a whole lot out of Keenan Lewis.” It goes without saying that I think we all are.

Allen, a raw 4th round draft pick out of the Citadel, was looking like he might spend his rookie season on the injured reserve list after battling hamstring problems for most of training camp and the preseason. He finally was able to suit up for the final preseason game against the Carolina Panthers and he flashed with two tackles and three defensed passes, one of which was deflected for an interception. He suited up as a special teams player, as one would expect, to start the season and he started to get some real playing time in the dime and big nickel packages in the week 7 game against the Arizona Cardinals.

Allen really showed his physical nature in the week 8 game against the New England Patriots lined up mostly in slot. He did give up 4 receptions in that game for 44 yards, but you could see the light bulb clearly come on at that point despite his rawness. While he only saw 60 defensive snaps in total last season, it got him acclimated to the defensive concepts of Dick LeBeau and he should progress even more this summer, his first full one under the watchful eye of Lake.

While Allen certainly seems to have the leg up for the starting nickle spot this year, he hasn\’t won the job just yet in shorts. He figures to battle Curtis Brown, who didn\’t sniff the field last season on defense as a rookie. Brown has shown on special teams the type of physical player that he is, but I figure Allen will hold him off. Should the aforementioned Lewis take any steps backwards this year, Allen figures to be the next man up to replace him on the outside.

Outside of the veteran Taylor, the Steelers cornerback depth has just over a combined 500 snaps between them all with Lewis having the biggest chunk of them. While that might be a concern for some teams, those teams don\’t have Lake as their secondary coach.

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