Lewis: Third Year Appears to be Charm

The Steelers have rocketed to the top of the NFL's pass defense rankings, and the only real personnel change has been in Keenan Lewis. Also: Thursday practice notes.

PITTSBURGH – The Steelers had the best defense in the NFL last season, by yardage statistics, but ranked only 12th in pass defense.

And those numbers didn't include the 288 yards and three touchdowns the pass defense allowed in their Super Bowl loss.

The Steelers looked within to solve their problem, and the answer appears to have come in the form of Keenan Lewis.

The third-year pro was promoted to nickel back, with William Gay replacing Bryant McFadden in the starting lineup, and it appears that the third year is the charm for Lewis.

"I think the big thing for him was having his daughter," said Lewis's teammate and lifelong friend Mike Wallace. "That put more responsibility on him to know he's not just out here for himself."

Lewis and his wife Dannel gave birth to Kalise on February 10, four days after the Super Bowl.

"Things change when you've got another responsibility," Lewis said. "It gives you more hunger. Every time I think about my daughter and my wife and my family, I know what time it is."

He knew it was time to start playing with a purpose.

"Last year I can admit I wasn't watching as much tape," he said. "I was just going out at practice and doing what I had to do. But now, I take home film and study more, try to work more on my technique, and just think more. It's helped me out."

One example was the Tennessee game. Lewis noticed on tape that when Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck saw a cornerback in press coverage, he liked to throw a back-shoulder fade.

"So on a fourth down, after I got that jam, I got my head around fast because I knew it was coming."

Lewis broke up the fourth-quarter 4th-and-5 pass intended for Marc Mariani and effectively ended the game.

"He anticipated it, he was ready for it, he broke the play up," said coach Mike Tomlin. "He's got skills, but those types of plays are intelligence-oriented, or experience-oriented. He's been in that situation before. He had an understanding of how they might attack him and he made the necessary adjustments and made the play because of it."

After seeing so little playing time in his first two seasons that he recorded only two tackles, Lewis has 16 tackles and two passes defensed through six games this season. He even started the game at Indianapolis when the Steelers opened up in their nickel package.

Lewis was explaining another factor in his improvement, that lining up opposite a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback such as Ike Taylor was forcing him to "bring my A game," but Lewis was interrupted once again by his friend Wallace.

"Tell him the other part," Wallace said to Lewis. "Tell him how you got better because you were checking me this summer."

"Yeah, we played a little ball this summer," Lewis said. "Wasn't a big deal."

The two old friends from New Orleans like to needle each other, particularly Wallace when he has an audience. Alone, Wallace spoke of his friend earnestly.

"I think one of the big reasons he's showing so well this year is that ever since we were seven years old he's always been a star player. Always," Wallace said. "So to come here and not play, that would be hard on anybody.

"But he's a great player, man. He's going to be one of the best in the league. You mark my words. I'm not going to be wrong. I know it. I know it. I know a good player when I see one. He's got it all. He just has to get more experience. For his first year out there he's doing pretty well. Once he's out there more you're going to see it. I know it."

NOTES – OLB Jason Worilds aggravated his strained quadriceps muscle Thursday at practice when jumped to break up a pass. Worilds limped around the locker room and said only that "it hurts." But he later emerged from the trainer's room saying he was hopeful of playing Sunday. … Casey Hampton, James Harrison, Chris Hoke, Doug Legursky and Aaron Smith missed Thursday's practice. Limited were Worilds, Rashard Mendenhall (knee), Maurkice Pouncey (elbow), and Wallace (hamstring).

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