The minute unrestricted free agent Will Gay signed with the Arizona Cardinals this offseason, Keenan Lewis set his sights set on one thing and one thing only – winning Gay's vacated starting left cornerback spot in the Steelers secondary.
"I just have to step up," said Lewis. "I have to do what I have been doing. I have to improve what I did last year. Instead of just coming in on third down, I want to be out there on first, second and third down. I am really excited for the opportunity and I know it's going to go the right way."
Lewis is hard at work training in an effort to attain that goal, taking part in voluntary workouts at the team's practice facility on a regular basis to ensure he is in the best shape possible to face the challenge of fighting for a starting spot.
"I have been working on my conditioning, just getting ready for the opportunity to go 60 minutes on the field," said Lewis. "I want to be in shape, in top-notch shape so when I get to camp I am ready to get going, off and running."
Lewis, who is entering his fourth season, saw the most extensive playing time of his career last year playing in all 16 games and making his first career start against Indianapolis in the nickel package.
"It helped a lot getting a feel for wide receivers and what quarterbacks are thinking," said Lewis. "It helps you with your maturity level and learning the game more. It helps being out there on the field because you see more things. Instead of watching it on tape or in practice only, you see different receivers, what offensive coordinators do to try and beat defenses and you become more familiar with that.
"Now I am a step ahead and excited for the upcomoing season."
Lewis will have some competition for the job, with second-year cornerbacks Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown both expected to be in the mix as well.
"I just need to keep doing what I do," said Lewis. "I just have to get better. I am going to take whatever they have for me and embrace it and get better at that. I know right now it's my time. I have to get better and better every day. I work hard and I know God will reward me for my hard work.
"Those two young guys are good guys who have a lot of potential and skills, so I know it's going to be a battle. I am just trying to be one of the top ones in the bunch."
Brown played in 12 games as a rookie, seeing action only on special teams. Allen played in 15 games, on special teams and in defensive packages, gaining valuable experience as a rookie that he hopes plays in his favor in the battle for the starting position.
"That was the goal last year, the goal this year, and the goal always to be a starter and contribute wherever coach (Dick) LeBeau and defensive staff feel I am best at," said Allen. "I am going in there to give my best and everything else should fall into place.
"The playing time I got last year helps a lot because I got a chance to get in-game experience and see what it's like to be in that arena not just on special teams but on defense. Gaining a little bit of confidence from your teammates is always a plus too because they have seen me out there and know what I can do. They have confidence in me as well as the coaching staff. That helped a lot as far as the mental and physical standpoint, just getting a feel for the game. I am just looking to improve on that this year."
Despite being young, and not having the starting experience at this high of a level playing collegiately at The Citadel, Allen is confident he can handle the responsibility that comes with playing cornerback in the NFL.
"That is why I do it," said Allen. "I love the position. It's a position that carries a lot of pressure, a lot of weight on your shoulders. It's very competitive. I love the competitiveness of it. I am in here, focused and ready to learn from as many people as I can so I can contribute as best as I can. I think I am making progress mentally and working on the physical part of it now."