Keenan Lewis often feels disrespected.
That he didn’t make the Pro Bowl last season and few utter his name in conjunction with it this year irks him. Ask him how he feels about it, and he’ll tell you. He might even tell you about it unprovoked — if you just happen to be around and he feels like talking about it.
He’ll also tell you all the star receivers he has shut down over the past two seasons and where he thinks he ranks among the NFL’s top cornerbacks. Here’s a hint: He’s near the top on his own list. Anyone who thinks differently is crazy to him. Try to oppose him. He has the stats ready to offer a rebuttal.
It’s not that Lewis is cocky or full of himself. He’s confident. He has to be. It’s a job requirement and, if you ask him, it’s part of growing up where he did: the rough-and-tumble Cut-Off section of Algiers on the West Bank.
“I feel like me, personally, I don’t get the recognition I deserve,” he said.
Every position on the football field requires a degree of confidence. But outside of quarterback, there might not be a position that requires a greater belief in one’s self than cornerback. You have to believe that you can stop the best receivers in the NFL to actually be able to do so. If you get beat, you have to be ready to dust off the doubts and believe that you’ll win the next battle.
Unlike an error on the line or by a linebacker, you can’t hide from the cameras in the secondary, and getting beat can lead to a barrage of expletive-laden Tweets blowing up your phone. Someone is constantly trying to leave you exposed, and all you have to defend yourself are your abilities and a belief that those traits will be enough.
“At corner, you have to have the most confidence on the field, right there with the quarterback,” Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “When things go wrong, you see some guys fold, and some guys rise to the occasion. You can’t remember the play. That’s hard to do.”
“You got to have the most swag on the team, I’d say,” Lewis added. “If not, they’ll pinpoint you — especially these quarterbacks today. You have to let them know that you’re confident in what you do as well.”
It’s not just confidence, though. That’s only part of the cerebral puzzle that goes into being a successful cornerback.
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick has been coaching in the NFL in one capacity or another since 1975, and he has come across more than a few cornerbacks who have immense talent but failed to perform because they lacked something mentally. He also has seen cornerbacks who have managed to succeed on mental talent despite lacking ideal measurables.
Two players he pointed to who fit the latter category are four-time Pro Bowler Everson Walls, who had 57 career interceptions playing for Dallas, Cleveland and the Giants; and Lem Barney, a Pro Football Hall of Famer who logged 56 interceptions over 11 seasons with Detroit. Belichick said those players would make him shake his head and say, “I’m worried about his speed” when he put a stopwatch on them, but they got on the field and shut guys down with their ability to anticipate what was coming next.
“There’s game speed and there’s anticipation and there’s instincts, and those things can neutralize some testing measurables,” Belichick said. “So, yup, huge part of the game.”
Vaccaro shared a similar anecdote about one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks when told of Belichick’s comments. Taking part in Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas’ football camp this summer, Vaccaro was eager to see how one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks, Richard Sherman, looked on the field.
What he found out is that Sherman succeeds primarily thanks to his anticipation and intelligence.
“We’re playing 7-on-7, and you’re thinking, ‘Is he super fast? Is he super quick?’ No, not at all,” Vaccaro said. “I feel like I’m just as good an athlete as this guy. But when I talked to him, the dude’s smart. He just has it all right here. It’s crazy. He plays a good technique. He’s a good athlete, but at the same time there’s guys on the street that run a 4.2 (time in the 40) and can’t play this game.”
That’s why Saints cornerback Corey White believes his position, after quarterback, is the toughest to prepare for on a weekly basis. Outside of what he does at the team facility, White said he watches at least an hour of film each night on his upcoming opponent to get a better feel for their tendencies and how he can go about gaining an edge.
The main thing he looks to do is eliminate what the receiver might or might not do in specific situations. So, when a player lines up in a certain spot, White typically has a good idea of what the player will not do, which helps him anticipate what he might do.
“When you can do that pre-snap, it makes the snap a lot easier,” White said. “That’s why (Patriots cornerback Darrelle) Revis, Sherman, those guys — they’re smart players. They got plenty of corners out there that’s the fastest, quickest, jump the highest.”
But, White added while tapping the side of his head with one of his index fingers, “If you don’t have it up here, (you won’t make it).”
Lewis takes it a step further. He said he spends at least 12 hours a day at the team’s practice facility studying his upcoming opponents between meetings and practices. He said he learned how to do so during his time with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Now he’s trying to pass those study habits down to players like White.
Outside of his natural ability, this is where his confidence comes from each week: in front of the screen, dissecting every little thing the player he’s going to match up with likes to do. This week against Cincinnati, even though there’s a chance a knee injury could keep Lewis sidelined, he has been brushing up on the things Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green can do on the field.
Lewis likes how he matches up with him.
“You need to have the opportunity to go against the best, just to let people know where you are,” Lewis said. “They starting to feel … I don’t want to float my boat, but when you have the opportunity to go against the best, people start to recognize that.
“I’m always up for the challenge.”