The Steelers named Carnell Lake as their new defensive backs coach on Monday and it looks like a solid hire from the outside. I documented the job Lake did in his one season coaching the UCLA defensive backs last week and Lake certainly has the resume as a former player. Lake played both safety and cornerback for the Steelers and played under Dick LeBeau as well, so he knows the basics of the defensive scheme.
One of the biggest projects that Lake will have as the new secondary coach will be 3rd year cornerback Keenan Lewis. Lewis, who was drafted by the Steelers in the third round of the 2009 NFL Draft, looked to be turning the corner slowly coming out of training camp and started at left cornerback in place of Bryant McFadden in the 3rd preseason game of 2010 as McFadden was nursing a hamstring injury. On just the second offensive play of the game, Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton hit receiver Eddie Royal with a pass to the short right for 18 yards and Lewis promptly tackled Royal out of bounds for 15 yard unnecessary roughness penalty. Lewis was picked on pretty regularly early in that game as he faced the likes of Royal, Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney. A few times his technique looked awful and it all came to a head with 4:45 left in the first half when Orton hit Lloyd with an 8 yard pass on the right side and Lewis was once again flagged 15 yards after he made the tackle. His frustration was very evident and head coach Mike Tomlin promptly yanked Lewis from the game. After the game, Lewis punched a sign that was encased in glass on his way to the locker room sending glass everywhere. This further infuriated Tomlin and he said afterwards that the young cornerback "stunk it up" in Denver.
Lewis played the following week against the Panthers and looked only pedestrian in the final preseason game. At that point it was clear he had lost his opportunity to overtake McFadden as the starter and pretty much remained in the Tomlin doghouse for most of the season from that point on. From then on out, when active on game days, Lewis saw most of his action on special teams where he recorded 7 tackles, but also tallied 3 penalties. He did not see snaps on the defensive side of the ball until the blow-out win against the Raiders in week 11 where he saw just 10 snaps. Against the Bills in week 12, Lewis saw just 3 snaps on defense and registered a pass interference call at the goal-line early in 4th quarter. Luckily the defense held and the Bills settled for just a field goal. Lewis played again late in the blow-out versus the Browns in the season finale logging 26 snaps on defense and ended 2010 with just 4 snaps on defense against the Packers in Super Bowl XLV. In total, Lewis played just 43 snaps on defense in 2010, and was credited with just a handful of tackles.
Lewis is deemed a bright kid as he excelled off the football field by earning Academic All-Pac 10 Conference honors as a senior while at Oregon State. He was placed on injured reserve with a back injury during his rookie season with the Steelers and that missed playing time might have been crucial in his development. After he was drafted, then secondary coach Ray Horton compared him to fellow Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor. Horton regarded him as a bump and run guy that could take away people at the line of scrimmage. Horton also noted he could be a swing guy at safety as well if needed. Lewis measured in at almost 6 foot 1 and 195 pounds at the combine in 2009 and is similar in build to his new coach, Lake. As of right now though, that is where the similarities end. Lake showed he can work with the younger kids while at UCLA and will likely need to start Lewis over with the basics. Luckily Lewis is still young and should mesh well with Lake. The two can get a fresh start together starting immediately.
Not only does Lewis have some technique issues, he seems to not yet grasp hold of the mental aspect of the game. He needs to learn to put bad plays behind him and focus better. It seems he might actually be trying too hard and that is certainly forgivable. He also might be trying to quickly catch up with the success of his good friend Mike Wallace, a long time friend from back home in Louisiana. Lake will in essence need to build Lewis in his own mold from his feet to his head. Lewis enters the final year of his rookie contract in 2011 and the Steelers will certainly give him every chance possible to win a starting outside corner spot. Should Taylor leave via free agency, Lewis will certainly be expected to step in a starting spot. In addition to Taylor possibly not being back, nickel corner William Gay is slated to be an unrestricted free agent as well, so there is no guarantee he will return in 2011 either. Should both Taylor and Gay both end up elsewhere in 2011, that would leave the Steelers with just McFadden and 2010 draft pick Crezdon Butler as the returning cornerbacks on the roster from 2010. Butler never saw the field as a rookie on defense and McFadden was inconsistent and had problems staying healthy.
In closing, 2011 will be now or never for Keenan and Lake should be a breath of fresh air for him. They say if you want to be the best, you need to learn from the best and Lake certainly is in that talk. Can he turn Keenan around and make him in his image? Time, as they say, will tell and the clock is already ticking on that time.