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Is Levi Wallace prepared to hold off the rest of the Steelers young cornerbacks?

With the inside track to the starting job in Week 1, what level of play does Wallace bring tat others will have to surpass?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 league year is well underway. With the 2023 NFL draft now behind us, there are still questions to be answered going forward. With Joey Porter Jr. taken as the 32nd overall pick, he will be looking to crack the starting lineup as soon as possible. But with Levi Wallace the front runner to start across from Patrick Peterson, what does he bring to the defense that Porter will have to attempt to unseed. This is the subject for this week’s Steelers Vertex.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

In his first season with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Levi Wallace appeared in 15 games where he had nine starts. Wallace pulled in four interceptions with the Steelers in 2022 which was a career high. Wallace also had a career high in passes defensed with 13 and also added 48 tackles. When it comes to the advanced stats, Wallace was targeted 77 times with 41 completions for 650 yards and three touchdowns according to Pro Football Reference.

When breaking his stats down more by individual games, Wallace was one of many Steelers defenders that had a much stronger second half of the season. Missing two games in the first half of the season in Week 6 and Week 8. Wallace gave up his most yards in 2022 in the Steelers loss to the Buffalo Bills as he was credited with 109 yards on four completions and a touchdown. But as the season went on, Wallace appeared to find his own with the Steelers. In fact, over the Steelers final three games Wallace only gave up three completions on eight targets for 42 yards and one of his interceptions.

But how did all this look on film?

The Film Line:

Levi Wallace’s start to the 2022 season started with learning a new defense and then adding a knee injury and concussion in the first half of the season. When he was on the field, he looked a bit tentative and slow.

Steelers vs. Bills, 1st quarter, 14:09

Levi Wallace (#29) is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.

Wallace gives a bit too much ground here to Gabriel Davis, and when Tre Norwood takes a bad angle to help they are both out of the play as the Bills take control less than a minute into the game.

But Wallace still showed his strengths even as he struggled and gave up yards.

Steelers vs. Bills, 2nd quarter, 11:32

Levi Wallace (#29) is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.

Wallace is very good in trail coverage and he shows that here. He stays physically involved in the route, reading the eyes of the receiver so he can turn and find the ball for his first interception as a Steeler.

Wallace played at least half the game in only 4 of the first 8 games, and yet had some of the worst coverage numbers on the team. His play was good at times and awful other times. That turned around after the bye week, and in my opinion, it all started in the 4th quarter of the Steelers Week 10 matchup with the New Orleans Saints.

Steelers vs. Saints, 4th quarter, 12:22

Levi Wallace (#29) is the cornerback.

This interception for Damontae Kazee was created by a subtle pull on the receiver’s arm that went unnoticed by the referees. Wallace got away with one here, and when the Saints got the ball back, they were looking to attack his side of the field.

Andy Dalton’s first pass of the drive was completed against Wallace, but held short of the first down by a nice tackle.

Steelers vs. Saints, 4th quarter, 8:13

Levi Wallace (#29) is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

Dalton is looking to attack the gap between Terrell Edmunds (jumping to tip the pass) and Minkah Fitzpatrick, but Levi Wallace reads the play and comes across to break up the pass. Wallace is a very good zone corner and shows it here in a cover-3 look, reading the play and getting to the ball in time. A stuffed run on third down would end this drive for the Saints.

The next drive would be the Saints last, starting off with a sack, a pass to Alvin Kamara that Levi Wallace tackled to bring up third and 9, and this play:

Steelers vs. Saints, 4th quarter, 4:30

Levi Wallace (#29) is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

Again in trail coverage, Wallace again stays physically involved in the route, turns with the receiver and finds the ball to turn the ball back over to the offense, and the Steelers would run the clock out.

The final 8 offensive plays of the game for the Saints showed they had targeted Wallace as the weak link in the Steelers coverage, and they went after him a number of times. Here’s the results:

1. Wallace gets away with holding WR arm, Kazee INT.
2. Complete pass held to 9 yard gain by Wallace tackle.
3. Wallace reads play to break up pass
4. Stuffed run on 3rd and 1.
5. Stuffed QB sneak on 4th down.
6. Sack
7. Pass to Kamara cut off well short of first down by Wallace
8. Interception by Wallace.

Levi Wallace seemed to gain confidence from this sequence, and from that point in the season on, he was a much more effective corner.

Steelers vs. Bengals, 2nd quarter, 0:35

Levi Wallace (#29) is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.

Wallace does a pretty good Joe Haden impression here, jumping the underneath route for a big turnover. The Bengals were looking to score to break the tie at the end of the half, but this play put the Steelers in position to play for a field goal and take the lead.

Steelers vs. Bengals, 3rd quarter, 12:50

Levi Wallace (#29) is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

Here Wallace shows again he can play tight coverage and make plays on the ball. The Bengals went after Wallace in this game, and he responded with one of his best games of the season, allowing less than a 50% completion percentage and a 40.5 passer rating when targeted by Joe Burrow. He also was instrumental in setting the Steelers up to win this game, as these two plays saw the Steelers leading the Bengals and in possession of the ball with 27 minutes left to play. The Steelers offense would fall flat and the Bengals would dominate the end of the game, but Wallace turned in a great performance and teams took notice. While Wallace had been targeted an average of 7 times a game from Weeks 5-13, he was only targeted an average of 3 times a game over the last 5 Weeks.

Steelers vs. Browns, 2nd quarter, 1:24

Levi Wallace (#29) is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

Wallace’s last interception of the season came in the finale against the Browns when he again was in a deep third coverage and read the play to come and make a play in the gap in front of Minkah Fitzpatrick. This was a key moment in the game, as the Steelers had just tied the game and would take the lead and control of the game after this turnover.

The Point:

The strengths of Levi Wallace are pretty clear. He is really strong in cover-2 and cover-3 assignments and does well playing tight trail coverage in man. The Steelers defensive additions of Keanu Neal, Patrick Peterson, Joey Porter Jr., and even Cory Trice point to the Steelers looking to play more press man along with the Cover-3/Tampa-2 they have been using and modifying since Teryl Austin and Minkah Fitzpatrick joined the team in 2019.

The ideal situation for the Steelers is to have Joey Porter Jr. seize the #1 cornerback job sooner than later, but realistically Porter Jr. will have rookie struggles and the presence of Levi Wallace gives the Steelers a sound cornerback that fits what their roster is built to run on defense. Wallace is more than capable of holding down the #2 corner spot across from Patrick Peterson as long as he’s healthy.