It had only been minutes after his team had suffered its seventh defeat this season, but Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis suppressed the disappointment in his voice when addressing one particular topic: the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he played for four years before coming to New Orleans in 2013.
Lewis rattled off a couple of his teammates’ names in the Steelers’ defensive backfield: Ryan Clark, the Pro Bowl safety; and Ike Taylor, who’s been in Pittsburgh his entire 12-year NFL career.
Lewis referred to a third teammate — eight-time Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu — as simply, “Hall of Famer.”
Taylor and Polamalu were part of two Steelers Super Bowl victories (2005 and 2008) and are still in Pittsburgh. Clark — now with Washington — was part of the Steelers’ Super Bowl victory in 2008.
And furthermore, Clark and Taylor grew up on the West Bank of the Mississippi River where it runs through the New Orleans area, where Lewis also was raised and is fiercely proud to hail from.
“I played with the best of the best,” Lewis said at his locker in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome after the Saints (4-7) lost to the Ravens 34-27 on Monday night. “And I’ll always be appreciative for … the knowledge (they taught) and (how) they helped me upgrade my game. So tops off to them — when I’m up there, I’ll be watching them as well.”
Lewis spoke about the Steelers (7-4) six days before the Saints were set to play them at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, where the New Orleans cornerback spent his first four years as a pro.
He left as strong an impression on the Steelers as that organization made on him, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin told New Orleans reporters during a conference call Wednesday.
“The thing that comes to mind when I think about (Lewis) is his competitive spirit and his willingness to work on a daily basis,” Tomlin said of a player Pittsburgh chose out of Oregon State in the third round of the 2009 draft. “This guy works at every opportunity. He’s a big time competitor. Everything is personal.”
Those traits enabled Lewis to crack the Steelers’ starting line-up in 2012. Opposite Taylor, Lewis broke up 23 passes for what was the NFL’s top-ranked defense that year, and he entered free agency the following offseason with a reputation as one of the top cornerbacks available.
The 6-foot-1, 208-pound Lewis landed a five-year contract worth up to about $25.6 million from the Saints. For New Orleans, it’s been well worth the price: he’s the Saints’ leader in passes defensed the past two seasons despite often covering opponents’ top receivers, and he’s registered five of his six career interceptions since joining the team.
Lewis starred on a defense that was No. 4 in the league in 2013 and proved to be a large reason why the Saints reached the divisional round of the playoffs. This year, the Saints defense has plummeted to 27th in the rankings, yet he’s mostly managed to maintain his high-caliber level.
He also earned the fervent admiration of fans for recently playing through an injury that made his knee swell grotesquely.
None of that surprises his old coach at the Steelers.
“He has all the components to be a real good corner, which his New Orleans (game) tape has proven that he is,” Tomlin said. “But he just brings a blue-collar work ethic and a competitive spirit to work every day, and those are the type of guys you like working with.”
“His Oregon State tape looks very much like his professional tape — he was a combative bump-and-run guy, and (he) did it consistently (under) all circumstances.”
Lewis on Monday night admitted the Saints had numerous issues they had to fix if they wanted to win versus Pittsburgh. He talked about their inability to stop either the run, the pass or both at once in virtually every loss this season.
But he remarked, “I feel as though anything could be fixed.”
Lewis added, “I’ve seen it happen to other teams, so why not us? I’ve never been the type to throw in the towel — I’m going to fight all 12 rounds.”