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Carter’s Classroom: Levi Wallace’s Instincts Key for Steelers CB1 Battle

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Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Levi Wallace
Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Levi Wallace works drills during OTAs at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, May 26, 2022 -- ED THOMPSON

Click for more of Carter’s Classroom at Steelers Now.

Levi Wallace wasn’t the most celebrated addition to the Pittsburgh Steelers in free agency, but he could end up as the most important of the group. The Steelers let Joe Haden go to free agency, but retained Ahkello Witherspoon to join Wallace and the already signed Cameron Sutton.

Sutton is the most experienced cornerback with the team and Witherspoon had a good showing in a small sample size to end the Steelers 2021 season. But Wallace is a veteran who stepped up for the Buffalo Bills when Tre’Davious White suffered a season injury.

Pro Football Focus recorded Wallace (including playoffs) to allow 55 of 91 targets for 60.4 percent, 650 yards, 308 yards after the catch, 11.8 yards per catch and five touchdowns. He also recorded three interceptions and seven pass breakups.

That was a lower completion percentage, less touchdowns and more interceptions than Cameron Sutton, who played only 37 snaps more than Wallace. Sutton allowed fewer passing yards and yards allowed after the catch, but was also targeted 17 times less than Wallace.

Witherspoon’s stats are difficult to gauge in comparison to Wallace because of their different sample sizes. Wallace played 1,116 snaps to Witherspoon’s 410, so his allowing more yards and yards after the catch aren’t relevant.

But Witherspoon did have a lower completion reception and the same number of interceptions as Wallace with a higher yards per reception allowed rate of 15.6. That shows a mixed bag, and more evidence that the Steelers have a competitive battle for the team’s top cornerback.

Wallace’s tape shows a fundamental cornerback who makes his best plays with smart decisions and good instincts. His athletic profile won’t jump off the screen, but that’s what makes some of the plays he creates even more impressive.

INSTINCTS

When you watch Wallace’s best moments, you see him often stay in position for his assignment to properly react to a quarterback’s decisions. If a quarterback commits to early to Wallace’s target, he knows how to take advantage of the mistake.

Watch this interception of Jets quarterback Mike White when Wallace jumped out of zone coverage. At the top of the play you can see Wallace keep his man in front of him. The route cut off as an underneath hook pattern. But Wallace read White’s eyes, jumped the route and made the interception:

Much of Wallace’s success comes from being in the right place in the right time. He doesn’t make wild guesses, but instead puts himself in good positions to have good reactions.

“I think you have base fundamentals that you rely on,” Wallace told Nick Farabaugh during OTAs. “That’s no matter what the defense is. You should then base coverages off of that. At the end of the day, I’m still a football player and I want to be a playmaker. That’s what it comes down to. You understand that and how to maximize your opportunity to makes plays for myself and the team.”

PHYSICAL LIMITATIONS

Wallace has decent length as a 6-foot cornerback, but he lacks explosive speed. His 4.63 time in the 40-yard dash in the 2018 NFL Draft was a big reason he went undrafted out of Alabama. But Wallace never let that hold him back from making it into the NFL; a trait Mike Tomlin likes very much. That was something he saw in Wallace while facing him and the Bills each of the last three seasons.

“I think he has a definitive chip on his shoulder,” Tomlin said in an interview with Missi Matthews. “I’m attracted to that. Here’s a guy that’s a fighter. He’s a competitor. I just love his story and his background. He had to fight in Tuscaloosa. He won that fight and assumed a starting role, and a significant role on some great teams down there. Then he had to fight again once he came to the National Football League and won that battle.”

Wallace doesn’t take plays off, a trait that will help his case for snaps in the Steelers defense. His instincts also apply to tackles he makes at the line of scrimmage. Watch how he sniffed out this screen to Tyreek Hill in the playoffs and snuffed out a play that was otherwise blocked well and could’ve led to big yards:

Those are plays that Wallace makes that the Steelers will happily welcome. Even when Wallace loses reps to receivers, you often see him apply good coverage and just get beat by phenomenal catches and throws. Diontae Johnson and Ben Roethlisberger made that very moment happen against Wallace in last year’s season opener.

Watch how Wallace plastered Johnson to the corner pylon and even got his hand on the ball. This was good coverage, just beat by a better play from the Steelers:

That may be the biggest drawback in Wallace’s bid to be the Steelers’ CB1. Wallace hasn’t consistently erased the top receivers from high ranking offenses. He creates tight passing windows, but ones that can be beat by the elite players of the NFL.

Here’s an example when he stuck with Hill on an in-route, but it didn’t stop Patrick Mahomes from hitting Hill in stride for a big touchdown:

Those are the moments where Wallace’s physical limitations are put in a spotlight. But the Steelers’ defense is one stacked with the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year in T.J. Watt, multi-time All-Pro stars in Cam Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick to boost the unit.

THE RIGHT FIT

The Steelers might not need prolific cornerback play to be an elite unit as long as the group was fundamentally sound. That’s Wallace’s profile, and he’s become better at turning those moments created with good fundamentals into difference-making plays.

Watch this interception of Tua Tagovailoa when Wallace dropped out of his zone coverage to jump the pass. You can see Wallace start to drop back deep to keep one receiver in front of him. But as his man cut to a deep post, another receiver ran a wheel route up the sideline and Tagovailoa went for it.

Because Wallace was in position, he read the route tree and Tagovailoa’s eyes to make the play:

Those types of moments could come more frequently for Wallace now that he’s with a defense that’s had the most sacks in the NFL for five straight seasons. He’s already expressed how much he likes the Steelers’ “egoless” secondary. Now he just has to fit into the puzzle Tomlin and Teryl Austin envision to get the defense back to the top of the league.

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