Steelers' Lewis develops into top-notch CB

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In a scene that similarly has played out numerous times in the 20-odd years they've known each other, Mike Wallace sat in a folding chair in front of his locker Thursday after practice, playfully busting the chops of childhood friend and teammate Keenan Lewis -- standing just a few feet away -- for getting beat that afternoon in practice.

Lewis, in perfect coverage, had a deep ball snagged over his head by Toney Clemons, who was playing the role of stud New York Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks -- right in front of team owners Dan and Art Rooney II.

"I was saying he was getting better until he got soup ate off his head -- in front of the owners -- both of 'em," Wallace smiled. "He got soup ate off his head -- a guy jumped over him and caught the ball. Took the ball from him. It got real nasty. I felt bad for him."

Wallace continued.

"We go way back like an old man's hairline. I've known Keenan since we were 5 or 6 -- he's been the same guy. He's been the same snotty-nosed little guy since I met him," Wallace said, laughing about his former O. Perry Walker High School teammate who grew up 10 minutes away from him in New Orleans. "I never really liked Keenan to tell you the truth."

Lewis just shook his head at Wallace, as if he has been hearing this kind of thing forever.

But then Wallace dropped his voice to a near-whisper.

"That's my guy, man. He's getting better every day. I see the progression for him every single day when he comes to work. He's a top-notch corner. He had to wait his turn and he's doing a really good job right now."

Lewis, in his first year as a full-time starter, is a large part of why the heavily scrutinized Steelers pass defense is the top-rated unit in the NFL heading into a game Sunday against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

Lewis' three pass breakups last week against the Redskins helped hold rookie phenom quarterback Robert Griffin III to his worst game as a pro. Two others against the Bengals included a dazzling deep ball swat of what would've been a near certain touchdown to receiver A.J. Green.

His career-high four breakups were among the team's few defensive highlights in a loss at Tennessee. Throw in a forced fumble against Philadelphia and consistently solid run support throughout the season for good measure.

Lewis is humbly nonchalant about his play.

"I've been doing OK. I've been doing a decent job. Some things I need to improve on, that I'm working on every day in practice," he said in his thick New Orleans drawl. "It's like anything -- once you repeat doing the same thing, and get more and more experience you should get better."

That game experience has made all the difference for Lewis, who played extensively as a nickel back a year ago and was named a starting cornerback this year.

"He's continued to grow," defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "I thought he played well last year and anticipated him steadily improving in the next three or four years, and that's what we're seeing."

Fellow New Orleanians and secondary mate Ryan Clark agrees.

"He's an extremely hard worker," Clark said. "What Keenan is doing, challenging receivers, being physical, constantly having the correct fit in the run defense, constantly being in the right place in coverage -- he's doing what he has to do to be prepared for those situations.

"But ... you have to be in them first. What's happened for Keenan is a gradual acclimation to being a starting corner in the NFL and now he's getting a better handle on not only the physical demands of it, but the mental and emotional demands as well."

Giants receivers Nicks and salsa-dancing Victor Cruz will further test him. But Lewis said facing teammates Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders -- and Wallace -- in practice have hastened his development.

The hyper-competitive Wallace and Lewis have pushed each other since childhood, and while each admits they've made the other better -- conflicting stories emerge from a still-contested footrace between the two 2 years ago.

Neither Lewis nor Wallace will concede defeat.

Wallace's take: "He lost. He said I cheated. I still won, after he tried to knock me out of my lane. This guy has never been faster than me -- only in his dreams can he beat me. He can't even catch me there."

"He tried to get me disqualified by running in my lane," Lewis said. "He won't admit the truth."

Either way, they hope the friendly rivalry continues for years in the NFL.

"You never get this opportunity in life and we got lucky to get it," Wallace said. "We don't take it for granted. We know that it's a blessing every day. That's why we've got to continue to get better so we can stay with each other for a long time."

Steelers - mobilehome

Dan Gigler: dgigler@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1884 and Twitter @gigs412.


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