In Steelers-Saints game, all eyes on Brown-Lewis matchup |

In Steelers-Saints game, all eyes on Brown-Lewis matchup

San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Anquan Boldin (81) pulls in a touchdown reception in front of New Orleans Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis (28) in the first half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)

During the Steelers’ most recent AFC championship season of 2010, cornerback Keenan Lewis and receiver Antonio Brown were young teammates eager to establish themselves as regulars.

On Sunday, they’ll form one of the marquee matchups of a crucial late-season game, when the New Orleans Saints visit Heinz Field to face the Steelers.

“I’m sure (Lewis) and Antonio Brown look forward to a big-time battle this week,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “I’ve seen a lot of that battle over the years on the practice field. It’ll be interesting to see it in a stadium.”

Known around the locker room for his competitiveness, Brown this week recalled some of the countless practice routes he ran against Lewis during the first three seasons of his career.

Brown was a sixth-round draft pick in 2010, a year after the Steelers selected Lewis in the third round. Although Lewis played sparingly as a rookie, he and Brown played in nine regular-season games — and all three playoff games — in 2010.

Both earned their first start while playing significant snaps in 2011, and they emerged as regular starters in 2012.

“I always went against him in practice, and it was great competition,” Brown said. “You could tell back then what he was capable of. He’s starting to prove it. He’s doing a great job.”

Lewis, who signed with New Orleans before last season, has earned the trust of Saints coaches to the point he has become the corner they typically assign to the opponent’s top receiver.

With the Steelers, that’s Brown, who leads the league in receptions and is second in receiving yardage.

“I expect to see a lot of him,” Brown said.

It’s a showdown that’s going to attract plenty of attention.

“Oh, you know I’m gonna watch,” Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor said. “After I do what I need to do on the sideline, I’m gonna watch the matchup … because I know what (Brown) brings to the table, and I know what Keenan brings to the table.”

Lewis, who parlayed his first season as a starter into a $26.3 million contract with his hometown Saints, holds advantages over Brown in height (6-foot-1 to 5-10), weight (208 pounds to 186) and reach.

Saints coach Sean Payton recalled how the Saints, coming off a season in which they had one of the worst statistical defenses in NFL history, set out to sign a cornerback in free agency. Option A fell through.

“We knew Keenan was the second guy we were going to because we had seen some good things but not that much exposure,” Payton said. “That ended up working out for us.

“He is someone who works extremely hard at his job. His length, his ball skills, those are things that have served him well. … In the two years we have had him, you have seen his confidence.”

Also a Louisiana native, Taylor invited Lewis to his annual football camp in June. William Gay, whom Lewis replaced (he regained the spot last season after Lewis left), also was there.

“We talked about how he’d feel coming back to Pittsburgh,” Gay said. “We’re excited to see him.

“Once a Steeler, always a Steeler. … He’s doing really well over there.”

Chris Adamski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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