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Where does Levi Wallace fit in the Steelers defense?

Looking at the good and bad in Wallace’s film.

NFL: DEC 26 Bills at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills faced the New England Patriots in the 2021 AFC Wild Card round. The Bills star cornerback, Tre’Davious White, had a season-ending injury in Week 11, and Levi Wallace had taken over as the Bills top cornerback. In that game the Patriots ran a lot of different looks at Wallace, and he ranked third in targets against him that game. More importantly for fans of the Steelers, that game against the Patriots showcased Wallace’s strengths and weaknesses, and paints a very clear picture of what the Steelers got for the 2-year, $8 million contract they gave Wallace.

For comparisons sake, Wallace’s $4 million average per year ranks 41st right now among cornerbacks in the NFL, with more free agents still out there that will likely drive that number down. It also is worth mentioning the Steelers signed Cameron Sutton to a 2-year, $9 million contract in 2021. I think it is important to start this film room with realistic expectations based on where his contract ranks.

Lastly, before we get into the film, the Bills’ defense was the best defense in 2021, and was the best passing defense by a good margin. That said, the Bills did see a small drop-off when Tre’Davious White was out. Dropping from second to fourth in scoring percentage against, they also gave up their only 300+ yard passing game without White, when they lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 14. But the biggest change was in turnovers. In 11 games with Tre’Davious White the Bills had 16 interceptions, in the last 6 games they only intercepted three passes. That’s a drop from 1.45 interceptions a game to 0.5 a game. But those are team numbers, let’s look at what Levi Wallace brings, and what he doesn’t bring, to the Steelers.

Bills vs. Patriots, 1st quarter, 9:05

Levi Wallace is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

This is good coverage, especially how smoothly Wallace and the slot corner swap their responsibilities on the switch release. That coverage loses to a well run route and a great throw. Wallace is still there at the end to prevent any extra yards, but this pass is still completed for a first down.

Bills vs. Patriots, 1st quarter, 5:48

Levi Wallace is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

The Bills have Wallace playing with inside leverage here, taking away anything to the middle of the field and pushing any vertical route into the sideline. Nelson Agholor does a good job at the stem of this route, moving Wallace further inside and slowing him down before he takes off. Wallace is cleanly beaten here, but his safety, Micah Hyde is there to cover for him and it’s a key early turnover for the Bills. Wallace isn’t the best corner defending good deep route runners, and having help over the top is going to be important for him in the future.

Bills vs. Patriots, 2nd quarter, 7:14

Levi Wallace is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.

This time the Bills are in a straight up man look, and Wallace does a great job thwarting and navigating the pick route. Notice he gets quickly into the right position to prevent yards when the back cuts inside. This is where Wallace really shines. He’s a smart, physical corner who finds the right spot and makes the smart play.

You may hear him called a Cover-2 corner, and this is why, he’s fantastic at reading the play quickly and defending it smartly.

Bills vs. Patriots, 2nd quarter, 6:32

Levi Wallace is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen, right behind the edge rusher.

Here the Patriots are running a different play off that same TE/RB dynamic, this time looking to get Hunter Henry open deeper after Wallace is physical early in the route. Wallace does a great job staying with Henry, and releasing him at the right time to avoid a penalty. You can see his hard outside leverage trying to drive Henry into the middle where he has help over the top. An important factor for any corner that isn’t a top-tier deep route defender.

But that physicality can come back to bite you, and in this game, it did.

Bills vs. Patriots, 2nd quarter, 6:26

That’s the physicality Wallace gave all game, but on this play the ref judged it as crossing the line into interference, and Wallace gives up 22 yards.

Bills vs. Patriots, 3rd quarter, 12:58

Levi Wallace is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.

The important thing here is his ability to react quickly to the throw, get into the right spot, and adjust to the deflected ball for another interception for the Bills.

Bills vs. Patriots, 3rd quarter, 5:41

Levi Wallace is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.

Great zone work here. He stays with the receiver on the deep out, but is able to keep his eyes on the quarterback, and gets up to stop the receiver from getting any extra yards. That isn’t his man, but his quick reactions allow him to help his teammates in zone.

Bills vs. Patriots, 4th quarter, 11:56

Levi Wallace is the cornerback, to the top of the screen, in deeper alignment.

When he’s deeper in coverage, he shows the burst to close and deny yards on short routes like this. Notice he gets to the ball faster than Tremaine Edmunds does, and Tremaine Edmunds is a ridiculous athlete.

It is striking to me how much Wallace’s skill set mirrors what Joe Haden has been giving the Steelers the last couple of years. Wallace, like Haden, is a solid tackler in the flat with the burst to close and deny yards. Like Haden, Wallace is a physical and smart defender who can navigate traffic on short route combos and find the right spot to be in order to make plays. Wallace, like Haden, is fine in both man and zone defense, provided he has help deep when he’s in man.

For the price the Steelers paid, it appears they have found a solid replacement for Haden’s role in the Steelers’ defense. The biggest difference I would expect to see is Wallace isn’t the playmaker Haden has been, but the Steelers are also paying well less than half what they were paying Joe Haden in 2021. If the Steelers are able to sign a playmaker like Tyrann Mathieu, the drop from Haden’s 11.5 average yearly contract to Wallace’s $4 million will have played a significant role.

The Steelers did a great job filling the exact hole left by Haden’s potential departure, while leaving cap room to bring in another talent somewhere else on the defense. They also are in a similar position to where the Steelers almost always are before the draft, where they could enter the season with the roster they have right now at cornerback, but there is also room to add a piece to strengthen the secondary, either by a bigger signing or a 2022 NFL Draft pick.