FOXBORO -- Dion Lewis had just finished what was far and away the best game of his professional career, but a fumble in the fourth quarter was all he could think about.
The 24-year-old Patriots back finished the 28-21 win over the Steelers with 15 carries for 69 yards and four catches for 51 yards. With LeGarrette Blount suspended for a violation of the league's substance abuse policy, Lewis was, for all intents and purposes, New England's feature back.
After two years out of the league, Lewis should have been giddy.
The mistake he made stuck with him, though. He was stripped near the goal line in the fourth quarter, and tight end Rob Gronkowski pounced on the pigskin at the six-inch line. Three plays later, Gronkowski scored his third touchdown of the game, much to Lewis' relief.
"It could've cost the team the game," Lewis said. "We won by seven, and if we didn't get the ball back that could've been a big turn in the game. But we won. My teammates hustled for me on that play. Just gotta try to get better."
Lewis said he was past the play as soon as it was over, but it's clear that he'll focus on having better ball-security going forward. Few could be more aware than Lewis that no job in the NFL is guaranteed, and he doesn't want a near-turnover to cost him any more time.
He's missed enough.
"That's the worst thing you can do," Lewis said. "It was the fourth quarter. That's money time. My teammates were hustling for me. Gronk made a great play for me and recovered the fumble. I thanked him a lot. Just gotta clean it up and make sure it doesn't happen again so I can still be out there because you can't be out there if you're gonna do that. I know that."
Lewis broke his leg before the start of the 2013 season and missed the entire year. He felt healthy enough to contribute to a team last season but did not make a regular-season roster. He went home to Albany, New York and worked out so that he would be ready to play whenever a team gave him a call.
"I think it was a test of my character," he said. "I think God gave me a test and see how bad I really wanted it. That's all I can think. Taking a challenge, overcoming adversity. Been dealing with that my whole life."
In February, Lewis signed a future contract with the Patriots, who lost Shane Vereen in the offseason after he signed with the Giants as a free agent.
"I knew I was gonna get an opportunity to compete," Lewis said. "It's a winning team. I consider myself a winner. The way I feel about myself, this was the place I wanted to be, to come in here and compete. I think highly of myself so I said, 'You gotta make it here or you can't make it at all.' "
Judging by the significant role he took in the Patriots opener, it appears as though Lewis has "made it" to a certain extent. He gained the trust of the coaching staff, saw the majority of the team's snaps at running back, and he performed well enough to potentially opportunities that extend beyond the typical duties of a third-down back.
"I'm obviously the smallest kid on the team," said the 5-foot-8, 195-pounder. "Everybody thinks that I'm just a little guy, just a scat guy. But I try to be an all-around player. That's what they ask me to do here. I'm just gonna keep building from this and try to get better."
That includes cleaning up the one hiccup that stuck with him after his best game as a pro.
"I made a mistake and just gotta get it corrected," Lewis said, "but besides that, it was a good beginning."