Evaluating The Steelers Secondary: Cornerbacks

As the start of my new offseason series, I will give grade evaluation sheets for the Steelers defensive back room, similar to those one would receive from a coaching staff at the conclusion of the season. Today, we will be evaluating the team’s cornerback room before pivoting to the safety position for the next article in the series.

As I had to evaluate their film to give proper grades, I have limited the article to players who played extensive defensive snaps at the cornerback position this past season. Moreover, I did not include the team’s UDFA pair in Bryce Watts and Chris Steele, as they do not have any NFL film at the moment. Enjoy and feel free to let me know what you think in the comments.

Grading Scale

7-Very Good
5-Above Average
3-Below Average
1-Not Acceptable

Levi Wallace

Toughness (Physical+Mental) – 8

  • One of the most physical cornerbacks in the entire league, plays with extreme physicality both in coverage, as well as shedding blocks and making tackles in the run game. Physicality is one of his defining traits as a player. Mentally, Wallace does a great job of having short term memory and making plays to erase his mistakes, just as he did with a game sealing interception against Pittsburgh in 2020 after giving up a touchdown earlier in the fourth quarter.

Tackling – 7

  • As a tackler, Levi Wallace combines both physicality and proper technique to thrive both in the open field and in the box. When driving routes in zone coverage, Wallace finishes through receivers bodies with violent contact to make them secure tough catches. As a run defender, Wallace thrives inserting off the edge in crack/replace situations, where he attacks with proper angles and forces backs to stop their feet where he can attack and finish through their near hip. His ability as a tackler helps limit YAC and explosive plays on receptions in both man and zone coverage assignments.

Eyes/Keys/Reads – 6

  • As he is not the best athlete at the position, Wallace relies heavily on his ability to key quarterbacks and use his advanced route recognition skills. In off coverage, he does a great job of keying quarterbacks drops(3 step quick game vs 5 step deep drop) to stay in phase and contest quick game concepts. In zone coverage, Wallace does a great job of allowing routes to develop and read opposing quarterbacks eyes in his drops regardless of his zone assignment. In man coverage, he does a great job of keeping his eyes on the receiver out of his breaks to close ground quickly and contest the catch point.

Block Destruction – 5

  • Given his great arm length and physicality, Wallace does a solid job of extending receivers away from his body and disengaging to make plays on the edge. He also does a solid job of evading blocks with quickness in space when closing downhill against screen game concepts. Naturally, he struggles when receivers with a strength advantage are able to get into his chest and get their momentum moving downfield.

Man Coverage – 5

  • Wallace is an effective defender in man coverage, showing a solid ability to mirror his opponents in press coverage and disrupt them with physical jams. In off coverage, he does a great job of slowing down his tempo and weaving laterally to contest intermediate route concepts. Naturally, given his lack of top end athleticism, leaving him on an island in man coverage always comes with the risk of him being beaten over the top by speedier receivers. That being said, when given safety help, Wallace is able to stay patient and undercut routes, where he is at his best.

Zone Coverage – 7

  • In both deep 1/3 assignments in Cover 3 and flat assignments in Cover 2, Wallace’s combination of instincts and length allow him to occupy throwing windows and close on the catch point with vision on the quarterback. He has a great understanding of route concepts and does a great job of baiting throws before closing on them to make impact plays. Particularly in flat zone assignments, Wallace does a great job of forcing checkdowns before braking downhill and putting ball carriers on the ground with violent sticks.

Flexibility – 6

  • Despite being a lengthier cornerback in stature, Wallace has noticeably fluid hips on film, allowing him to effectively transition to carry receivers downfield in press coverage as well as transition out of his crossover run in zone coverage assignments. While he is a top level athlete by NFL standards, his hip mobility allows him to make smooth transitions with no wasted steps, helping mitigate his lack of top end speed.

Strength – 4

  • While he is more than willing to get physical in the run game, his lack of weight and top end play strength will cause runners to fall forward on contact at times when they are able to turn upfield before contact is made. Not a trait which hinders his ability to contribute, but it is certainly an area that he could continue to improve upon as his career progresses.

Speed – 4

  • The largest weakness of Wallace’s game is his lack of top end speed, clocking a 4.63 time exiting Alabama, a time which reflects pretty closely to his current game speed. He is a long strider who picks up his speed downfield, but receivers who can separate at the line of scrimmage can give him some trouble on routes that attack him vertically. In split field coverages, the Steelers would be wise to have Wallace travel to the passing strength, where he will have more help from his safeties.

Strengths (Does Best)

  • Wallace’s physicality and instincts in zone coverage are undeniably his best traits. He brings physicality, high level communication, and playmaking ability to the Steelers defense, where he should help generate turnovers in zone coverage assignments. Particularly in the teams single high, Cover 3 shells, Wallace does a great job of ranging from the hash to the sideline and taking advantage of underthrown balls to generate takeaways.

Weaknesses (Improve On)

  • Wallace’s overall measurable skills, namely his speed and play strength are the largest limitations to his game at this juncture of his career. His lack of top end speed prevents his ability to consistently survive in 1v1 matchups against the league’s top X receivers. Likewise, he works best as a field cornerback, working to the passing strength where his limitations are hidden, likely leaving Ahkello Witherspoon to serve as the teams top boundary cornerback in split field coverages.

Ahkello Witherspoon

Toughness (Physical+Mental) – 5

  • Ahkello Witherspoon showed great mental toughness this past season, arriving in camp via trade and struggling to see the field for a majority of the season before thriving once inserted into the lineup later in the season. Similarly, he does a great job of remaining steady play to play, making up for any mistakes he makes by staying locked in and ready to make impact plays as the game continues. In terms of physical toughness, he increasingly showed more of an ability to take shots in the run game and tackle after the catch, an area where he had struggled mightily throughout the early portion of his career. He needs to continue to get more physical as a player, but I thought he made great strides in that department this past season.

Tackling – 4

  • Tackling was one of the biggest weaknesses in Witherspoon’s game exiting college and has continued to be a struggle at the NFL level. That being said, in Week 13 against Baltimore, Witherspoon did a great job of not only tackling with proper technique, but finishing through ball carriers and pass catchers with physicality. Given his slight frame he’s always going to be more of a drag down tackler, susceptible to ceding extra yards to larger framed players. That being said, the more decisive and physical he is as a tackler the more he should continue to improve that facet of his game.

Eyes/Keys/Reads – 7

  • An area where Witherspoon thrived this past season was his ability to use proper eye discipline to stay in phase and contest routes in man and zone coverage alike. In press man coverage, he does a great job of keeping his eyes glued to receivers hips before turning to locate the ball at the catch point. In his zone coverage assignments, he did a great job of cluing opposing quarterbacks 3 and 5 step drops to stay in phase to contest quick game concepts, particularly against the Browns in Week 16, where he broke up multiple stop routes from his deep ⅓ assignment in Cover 3. His eye discipline is a primary factor in his ability to contest the catch point and generate turnovers at a healthy rate.

Block Destruction – 3

  • Given his slight frame, Witherspoon struggles to disengage from stalk blocks when receivers are able to get into his chest and control him at the point of attack. He would be best served in the future to use his speed advantage to attack blocks in space and try to stack oncoming blockers before they can make contact. Given his lack of play strength, this will likely never be a strong suit in his game, and is a weakness that opponents should be able to take advantage of through targeting him in the wide receiver screen game.

Man Coverage – 7

  • Ahkello Witherspoon is undeniably the teams most capable man coverage defender in the secondary entering the 2022 season. He has shown the ability to excel in press man coverage matchups where his patience and length allow him to disrupt receivers at the line of scrimmage before using his long speed to carry receivers and squeeze them into the sideline downfield. In off man coverage, he has shown great situational awareness and the innate ability to play the sticks on third down and jump routes. The team would be best served to roll coverages away from him and allow him to thrive in isolated 1v1 matchups with opposing teams X receivers, maximizing his skillset and value within the defense.

Zone Coverage – 6

  • In zone coverage, Witherspoon has shown great ability to range hash to sideline in Cover 3 assignments, where his length makes it tough for quarterbacks to fit balls into tight windows. In Cover 2, Witherspoon can similarly occupy intermediate throwing windows and force checkdowns before rallying to tackle the catch. His most valuable skill is his ability to remain patient in his zone coverage assignments and contest all three levels of the field, waiting to bail until his cushion is threatened vertically. The team could thrive in Cover 3 this upcoming season with a tandem of Witherspoon and Levi Wallace operating opposite of each other.

Flexibility – 6

  • Witherspoon has solid hips for the position, particularly for a player with a lengthy frame. He is routinely able to stay square and patient at the line of scrimmage before opening to carry receivers vertically while staying connected to their hip. His trust in his hip mobility also allows him to play effectively in a half turn from off man coverage, where he will seal off the inside, forcing throws outside of the numbers where he trusts his burst to recover and contest the catch point.

Strength – 3

  • The largest weakness in Witherspoon’s game is his play strength. While his quick jams at the line of scrimmage are able to stun receivers, he often absorbs the brunt of the impact when closing downhill as a tackler. Despite his growing willingness to come downhill in run support, he will continue to struggle in this department given his lack of play strength and a filled out frame. That being said, his slight frame keeps him nimble and athletic for his size, which in my opinion, outweighs the drawbacks of his lacking play strength.

Speed – 7

  • Witherspoon’s speed is one of his best traits, particularly for a player of his stature. He clocked at a 4.45 40 time at the combine, a number which is pretty true to his game speed. While it is not rare speed for the position, working in tandem with his 6’3” frame and 33” arms, it makes it extremely difficult for receivers to separate from him vertically. His speed and burst also allow him to close to the catch point from out of phase, a trait which makes him a dangerous player to target even when receivers initially appear open.

Strengths (Does Best)

  • Witherspoon’s biggest strengths are his speed, frame, and ability in man coverage. Entering 2022, he should be able to thrive in man coverage assignments which would allow Tomlin and company to be extremely creative in rolling coverages away from him. Although it was a small sample size, his ability to blanket receivers and contest the catch point in man coverage was extremely impressive in his late season 2021 tape.

Weaknesses (Improve On)

  • Witherspoon’s biggest weakness is always going to be his play strength and transitively, his ability to shed blocks and make tackles coming downhill. While he showed more willingness and physicality as a tackler in 2021 than he had previously in his young career, he is always going to struggle at the point of contact against larger framed receivers and backs who are able to outmuscle him at the point of contact.

Cameron Sutton

Toughness (Physical+Mental) – 8

  • Cameron Sutton has done a magnificent job of showing his versatility in his time in Pittsburgh, playing on the boundary, in the slot, as a dimebacker, and even occasionally at the safety position. Regardless of what position he is aligned at, Sutton has done a great job of being a great communicator and executing his assignments to the best of his ability. After entering the league as a somewhat lackluster tackler, Sutton has become a far more physical player, to the point where he now excels in defending opponents screen game and tackling in the open field.

Tackling – 6

  • As I touched upon, Sutton’s tackling has steadily improved in his time in Pittsburgh, improving his technique, physicality, and decisiveness as a tackler. In the screen game, Sutton triggers quickly and comes downhill with the intent to punish receivers before they can turn upfield. In zone coverage, he does a great job of breaking downhill and making receivers pay a toll on quick game receptions. While he is still susceptible to some misses in the open field and can cede extra yardage to larger framed ball carriers, Sutton’s ability as an open field tackler is a strength of his came at this stage of his career.

Eyes/Keys/Reads – 7

  • Always heralded as an extremely high IQ player, Sutton does a great job of keying opposing quarterbacks in zone coverage and feeling route distribution from receivers in front of him. His eye discipline allows him to close on receivers from out of phase before turning to locate the football and contesting the catch point. Particularly in zone coverage, Sutton does a great job of overlapping and securing timely interceptions on overthrown balls.

Block Destruction – 6

  • Cameron Sutton’s best trait in evading oncoming blockers is his ability to trigger quickly and beat them to a spot. While he can get overpowered once an oncoming blocker is able to get into his chest, he rarely allows that to happen due to his quick recognition ability. He had multiple tackles for a loss this past season knifing off the edge past oncoming pullers to cut down opposing backs in the backfield.

Man Coverage – 5

  • While he is capable in press man coverage, particularly adept in his mirror technique, Sutton’s lack of ideal top end speed limits his ceiling in that facet of his game. In off coverage, Sutton is extremely smooth in his pedal, breaks efficiently, and does a great job of matching the tempo of opposing receivers to stay in phase at all three levels of the field. Likewise, his man coverage is most effective in the slot, where his ability in off man coverage is an asset. Regardless, his versatility to play man coverage both in the slot and on the boundary is an asset.

Zone Coverage – 7

  • Cameron Sutton is one of the best zone coverage defenders in the Steelers secondary, capable of handling a wide menu of coverage assignments. He has served in a variety of coverage assignments on the boundary, showing great ability to clue quarterbacks and stay in phase to contest quick game as well as keep routes in front of him downfield and capitalize on overthrows. When aligned in the slot, Sutton has shown a great ability to execute his run reads before expanding to the flat and baiting quarterbacks into costly throws, occupying intermediate throwing windows and rallying to tackle checkdowns well short of the sticks. As a dimebackder, Sutton has shown the ability to drop post snap and serve as the post safety in invert Cover 3 looks, where he has extremely natural feel for transitioning from his crossover run back into a backpedal while keeping vision on the quarterback.

Flexibility – 6

  • Sutton has extremely fluid hips, allowing him to transition to carry receivers vertically as well as recover when receivers are able to cross his face to the inside. His above average hip fluidity allows him to be particularly effective in his weave pedal, where he can quickly break even when not square to the line of scrimmage. Similarly, his hip mobility makes him particularly effective in breaking out of a crossover run, a trait which allows him to thrive in zone coverage assignments.

Strength – 6

  • As he has progressed throughout his NFL career, Sutton has noticeably gained strength to where it is now an asset in his game. When coming downhill, Sutton has solid hit power and can make receivers earn tough yardage. Similarly, he has the necessary strength to meet some of the league’s most powerful runners, namely Nick Chubb, in the backfield, with the power to cut them down with no opportunity to fall forward.

Speed – 5

  • While Sutton’s strength is not necessarily a glaring weakness, it can be exposed by some of the league’s speedier receivers, and is a large reason why he is likely best suited to play in the slot as opposed to on the boundary moving forward. His ability to recognize routes and trigger quickly mitigates much of what he lacks in speed, but as was evident in a game against the Vikings, he can struggle to run stride for stride with the game’s fastest receivers if unable to get hands on downfield.

Strengths (Does Best)

  • Sutton’s best traits are undeniably his top end route recognition, versatility in both alignment and assignment, his smooth backpedal, and his ability to trigger quickly when closing downhill. If he is able to move into a full time role in the slot this upcoming season, Sutton should serve as an extremely effective coverage player in both man and zone, capable of triggering downhill and making tackles in the box. He has shown a nose for the football both in the pass game as well as forcing fumbles, where he is adept in a variety of techniques including the peanut punch.

Weaknesses (Improve On)

  • Sutton’s largest overarching weakness which prevents him from being a top tier corner on the boundary is his lack of top end long speed, which prevents him from thriving in press coverage against the games top receivers. He is an extremely well rounded player who has maximized his skillset, but his lack of top end athleticism prevents him from being one of the game’s top cornerbacks.

Arthur Maulet

Toughness (Physical+Mental) – 8

  • Toughness is Arthur Maulet’s defining trait, and a large reason why he has been able to carve out a career in the NFL. Last season in Pittsburgh, he served as the teams nickel cornerback on run downs, where his ability to knife past oncoming blockers in the box and make tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage helped replace some of what the team lost in Mike Hilton. For a player of his stature, he is unique in his fearlessness coming downhill and arriving at the point of contact with violent intentions against larger ball carriers.

Tackling – 8

  • As a tackler, Arthur Maulet is quick and decisive when triggering downhill and has both great physicality and technique at the point of contact. Maulet collected five tackles for a loss this past season playing purely in a limited sub package role, adding plenty more at or around the line of scrimmage. When he is at his Nickel spot, he functions nearly as effectively as an overhang linebacker, and has shown quickness blitzing off the edge to hit and hurry quarterbacks as well.

Eyes/Keys/Reads – 5

  • When keying the snap against the run, Maulet has a great feel for jumping the snap count and quickly knifing into the backfield. In coverage, particularly in man, Maulet can get caught playing with high eyes, leaving him susceptible to head fakes from opposing receivers. In zone coverage assignments, he does a solid job of keying quarterbacks and triggering once the pin is pulled on check down throws.

Block Destruction – 7

  • Maulet has shown the ability to contort his body to evade oncoming blockers both in the box and in the open field. While his smaller frame makes it tough for him to box oncoming blockers at the point of attack, his ability to evade and stack blockers makes it tough for opposing lineman to block him legally. His ability to diagnose and trigger quickly allows him to put himself in position to use angles to his advantage and slide past oncoming blockers, particularly in the box.

Man Coverage – 3

  • Simply put, Maulet’s inability to stay with receivers in man coverage is the primary reason why he was taken off the field on passing downs. When teams were able to isolate him in man coverage assignments from the slot, he was rarely in phase to contest the catch point, possessing neither the patience or burst to stay with receivers out of their breaks. Given his inability to function at a playable level in this facet of his game, Maulet remains a niche player who excels in the small pockets in which he is playable.

Zone Coverage – 4

  • While the zone coverage was certainly better than what he put on film in man coverage, Maulet has a tendency to drift in zone coverage and lacks the necessary patience or length to occupy intermediate throwing windows well enough. More importantly, even when in phase, he has not shown the ability to play the catch point effectively. All that being said, he is still a great open field tackler which helps give him value in tackling the catch on checkdowns.

Flexibility – 4

  • Maulet’s stiff hips make it extremely tough for him to transition downfield and carry receivers vertically, as was exposed late in a road game against the Chargers on Sunday Night Football. As he does not have the ability to quickly and efficiently flip his hips, he is forced to prematurely open his hips to protect himself vertically, allowing receivers to easily cross his face working back inside.

Strength – 7

  • Maulet’s play strength is evident in his hit power as a tackler, where he routinely drives ball carriers and pass catchers backwards despite often being at a size disadvantage. Similarly, when ducking and boxing oncoming blockers, Maulet is more than able to hold his own against oncoming lineman who are often double his size.

Speed – 3

  • Maulet clocked a 4.62 40 time at the NFL combine, a number that is reflected pretty closely in his game speed. He simply does not possess the speed to carry receivers vertically if he does not get hands before they declare downfield. Likewise, it is clear on film that he does not trust his speed and is forced to open the gate prematurely. His lack of speed ultimately makes him largely unplayable on obvious passing downs, limiting his usage as a player.

Strengths (Does Best)

  • Maulet’s strength, physicality, quick trigger ability, and ability to evade oncoming blockers in the backfield are his best traits and the reason that he still has a home in the league. If he is on the roster in 2022, he can likely continue to help the team deploy their Nickel package on obvious run downs, where his ability to wreak havoc in the backfield will always be an asset.

Weaknesses (Improve On)

  • Maulet’s notable lack of speed and hip mobility prevent him from functioning effectively in man coverage, making him unplayable on obvious passing downs. While this limits his usage and makes him a niche package player, he is good enough at what he does well that he will continue to impact the game even on a limited snap count.

James Pierre

 Toughness (Physical+Mental) – 5

  • James Pierre showed the ability to trigger downhill and tackle effectively both on defense and as a gunner on special teams in 2021. Regardless, after an impressive start to the season, he lost his confidence as the season continued, eventually being benched in favor of Ahkello Witherspoon after allowing multiple deep ball touchdown receptions. He will need to adopt a quick memory in order to survive at cornerback in the NFL, one of the toughest and most tumultuous positions in all of sports.

Tackling – 6

  • As a tackler Pierre triggers downhill quickly and arrives with physicality when engaging ball carriers at the point of contact. He will drop his head on contact at times, but overall, his technique is solid as a tackler. Regardless, he arrives with physicality and finishes through ball carriers at the point of contact, tackling is undeniably one of his biggest strengths as a player.

Eyes/Keys/Reads – 4

  • As Pierre is still a young developing cornerback, getting his first extensive playing time on defense this past season, his eye discipline was not where it needed to be. Too often, Pierre would turn to locate the football too early, allowing receivers to drift away from him downfield for uncontested receptions on deep balls. Against opponents screen game however, Pierre was extremely quick to diagnose, trigger, and beat oncoming blockers to stop ball carriers at or around the line of scrimmage.

Block Destruction – 6

  • Similar to Arthur Maulet, Pierre does a great job of beating oncoming blockers in open space with speed to create angles where he can shed their blocks and free himself to make tackles. While he is not at his best when blockers are able to engage and get into his body, his ability to trigger quickly and beat blockers to the spot often mitigates these concerns.

Man Coverage – 4

  • In man coverage, Pierre flashed some great reps early in the season, particularly in off coverage where his click and close ability shines. In press coverage, Pierre has some solid reps but too often will allow receivers free releases at the line of scrimmage. He needs to get to the point where he is comfortable contesting the football down field in coverage before he will be playable on the boundary.

Zone Coverage – 4

  • In zone coverage, Pierre has great range and has shown the ability to work from the hashes to the sidelines. When he is able to keep things in front of him, he does a good job of breaking with vision and contesting the catch point. Regardless, he similarly struggles when bailing and unable to keep vision on the receiver, often drifting and allowing receivers to create downfield separation working toward the sideline.

Flexibility – 5

  • Pierre is a solid athlete with good, if not great hips for the position. He can turn efficiently to carry receivers downfield in man coverage. Nonetheless, he seems to struggle opening into his crossover run in zone coverage. When beaten across his face, Pierre has shown solid ability to utilize his speed turn, although it’s not something he should look to rely on too heavily as it exposes his blind spots against nuanced route runners.

Strength – 4

  • While he is extremely physical in the run game, Pierre’s overall play strength is not great at this juncture of his career. He is still susceptible to getting dragged for extra yardage when ball carriers are able to turn upfield before contact and struggles to disengage from blockers once they are able to get into his chest.

Speed – 7

  • Raw speed is one of James Pierre’s best traits. His makeup speed when beaten both vertically and laterally was noticeable this past season. A cousin of Lamar Jackson, Pierre claims that he can beat his cousin in a race, a claim which is believable given much of what he’s put on tape. He is an athletic cornerback that primarily wins with his advantage in speed and ability to close to the catch point from out of phase.

Strengths (Does Best)

  • Pierre’s best traits at the moment are his raw speed, physicality, and ability as a tackler. He put some great reps on tape this past season both defending opponents screen game as well as in crack/replace situations off the edge. His speed and physicality should continue to make him effective on special teams, where he first caught my eye during the 2020 season.

Weaknesses (Improve On)

  • Simply put, James Pierre needs to improve his eye discipline in both man and zone coverage, as well as his ball skills to contest at the catch point. Until he is able to comfortably and legally contest the catch point downfield from a trailing position, he will not be playable as a boundary cornerback in the NFL.
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