'Kill-ah' is on the loose

Keith Lewis strolled to his stall in the 49ers locker room this week as a few teammates chanted "Kill-ah" in the background. It's a label now attached to Lewis because of his devastating hits. SFI then went up to Lewis and asked if he should be called "Steel-ah" now, because of his recent rash of takeaways. Lewis let out a hearty laugh, the kind that comes from a player making his name in the NFL.

"For the most part, everything's working out," said the third-year safety/special teams stud. "For me to get this opportunity, I have to make the best of it - take it and go with it and don't look back - and so far things are going pretty good."

Are they ever. The heavy-hitting Lewis now is making big plays as the starting free safety in San Francisco's suddenly resurgent defense, and his contributions have been a major factor in the team's first three-game winning streak since 2002.

But the opportunity Lewis speaks of has been a long time in coming. It was just a couple of months ago Lewis was branded as a special teams mainstay, but not much more for a San Francisco team searching for answers on defense and undergoing a massive reconstruction on that side of the ball.

Lewis yearned to be a bigger part of all that, but he wasn't about to rock the boat. He was third on the depth chart at safety when the season started. The 49ers had just released long-time veteran special teams captain Terry Jackson with the intention of Lewis taking over Jackson's role as the leader and guiding force on those units. And coach Mike Nolan, as he spoke individually with each player before the start of the season, indicated that would be Lewis' primary purpose with the 2006 49ers.

"Nolan called me into his office on cut day (in early September), and our talk was mainly about me being a special teams player, and that was that," Lewis told SFI.

My, how things have changed. Lewis has been the catalyst of a defense that has become increasingly opportunistic since he entered the starting lineup Nov. 5 against Minnesota.

The 49ers have produced 12 turnovers in the three games Lewis has started after recording eight takeaways in their first seven games, and Lewis has been in on a lot of that action.

"That's crazy," Lewis said. "We always talked about when turnovers come, they come in bunches. For the most part, that's how they're coming right now. Everybody's flying around, getting hats on the ball, getting pressure on the quarterback, and those things cause turnovers."

The turnovers have helped create a defensive turnaround that has the 49ers (5-5) at the .500 level in November for the first time since 2003 and has San Francisco knocking on the door of playoff contention entering Sunday's game against the Rams (4-6) in St. Louis. The Niners are just one game behind first-place Seattle in the NFC West, and with six weeks remaining they currently sit No. 8 in the pecking order for six NFC playoff berths.

Lewis has been right smack in the middle of the turnaround, making big plays that have turned the tide in San Francisco's favor.

"He's made a considerable difference," Nolan said. "He's a physical player. I think everyone has recognized in the couple years he's been here what a presence he is in the kicking game. He can hit you, he's a good tackler and he makes plays. We need that on defense just like we do on special teams."

So now Lewis is doing both. He continues to make an impact as San Francisco's special teams captain, leading the 49ers with two tackles on those units during last week's 20-14 upset of defending NFC champion Seattle. Lewis leads the 49ers with 14 special teams tackles.

But now he's becoming a difference-maker on defense, too. Lewis had an interception and recovered a fumble in the first half against Seattle, and the 49ers turned both turnovers into field goals on their way to a decisive 20-0 halftime lead.

The week before, Lewis caused a fumble that was recovered by the 49ers and had an interception near the Detroit goal line in the final minutes to seal a 19-13 victory over the Lions that gave San Francisco its first road win of the season. The week before that, Lewis started getting comfortable immediately in his first start, making a key pass breakup in a 9-3 victory over the Vikings.

Known as one of San Francisco's most aggressive hitters, the 210-pound Lewis has become an intimidating presence in the secondary that makes opponents think twice about coming over the middle.

He also has played surprisingly well in passing situations as the 49ers allow him to roam the middle in zone coverages.

The rap on Lewis when he entered the NFL in 2004 as the 49ers' sixth-round draft choice was that he lacked the speed and coverage skills to excel as a starter. That typecast Lewis as a role player on defense.

But after the 49ers' 2-5 start, when a porous San Francisco defense was on a pace to allow the most points in one season by any team in NFL history, Nolan decided to make changes and give Lewis a shot.

Lewis was ready for the opportunity, and the San Francisco defense hasn't looked back since he entered the starting lineup.

"I see the field a lot more now," Lewis said. "I had to expand my vision, and (coaches) worked with me and taught me how to read different offenses and different situations. Seeing the field better was really a key, because my anticipation just went up that much more, and now it seems I'm starting to make plays on the ball."

All of this would have seemed improbable just a few months ago. And, when Nolan started dropping Lewis' name at the bye week as a player who might be seeing more time on defense, Lewis said he wasn't putting too much stock in those reports. After already being pigeon-holed as a "special teams guy," Lewis wasn't getting his hopes up.

"It's one of those things where it's a tough situation because this is a franchise and organization that I really like," Lewis said. "For me just not really getting an opportunity (on defense), it really bothered me, but it was one of those things that I never showed it and never brought problems to work. I just went out there and did my job."

So, when Lewis got a call from secondary coach Vance Joseph the week before the Minnesota game saying he was going to start getting more defensive repetitions, "It shocked me," Lewis said. "It was one of those things where I was like, 'I'll believe it when I see it.'"

Now everybody is seeing Lewis prosper in the secondary, and people are believing again in a San Francisco defense that has allowed just 30 points in three November games.

"If you look at measurables like speed and agility, you kind of cringe thinking, 'Can he be a starter in the NFL?'" Scot McCloughan, the 49ers' personnel guru, said of Lewis. "But yet, he's the type of guy that has the instincts to be in the right place at the right time. And that's all that matters when it's said and done."

And so, the 49ers set Lewis free in their secondary, and now "Kill-ah" is on the loose. The San Francisco defense hasn't been the same since.

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