In the modern NFL, a Nickel cornerback, for all effective purposes, must be considered a starter. Thus, teams must field a trio of capable cover corners to effectively defend against 11 personnel sets. Entering Week 1 of last season, the Steelers fielded a cornerback trio of a noticeably aging Joe Haden, a second round UDFA in James Pierre, and the units one consistent ahead of this upcoming season, a versatile veteran in Cameron Sutton.
After some offseason investment in the position, the Steelers enter this upcoming season with Cameron Sutton and Ahkello Witherspoon, who played his best career football to date late last season as the teams projected starters in base. In Nickel, the versatile Cam Sutton will work out of the slot, while another lengthy, experienced veteran in former Buffalo Bill, Levi Wallace, will work alongside Witherspoon on the boundary. This past weekend’s game in Jacksonville marked the first time that the trio took the field together for in stadium action, producing a solid output against the talented Trevor Lawrence.
The trio helped limit Lawrence to 14/21 passing for 133 yards, 6.3 yards per attempt, and a passer rating of 84 in one half of action. While Lawrence was able to beat tight coverage at times, showcasing the arm talent that got him selected first overall, the trio of cornerbacks helped hold Jacksonville’s offense out of the end zone on a pair of red zone trips. Later, on a Jacksonville drive late in the first half, tight coverage from the secondary helped force Lawrence to throw short of the sticks, where Damontae Kazee was able to make a tackle and secure an impactful turnover on downs.
In total, Levi Wallace was credited with three tackles while Sutton and Witherspoon were credited each with a pair of tackles in one half of action. While Wallace did start the second half at the right cornerback spot, he was replaced in favor of Chris Steele after two reps, joining Witherspoon and Sutton on the bench for the remainder of the preseason game.
From my early observations of the unit, Witherspoon has largely picked up where he left off last season, playing with noticeable confidence and possessing the largest frame and best athletic tools of the unit. He plays with patience in off coverage, trusting his ability to run with receivers vertically and control their second level releases with his lengthy frame. He consistently undercuts intermediate, in-breaking routes when he is able to work with safety help, taking safe risks while playing within the scheme. The Steelers will need him to be their best man coverage corner this upcoming season, and will rely on him, along with Minkah Fitzpatrick, to help the secondary generate takeaways at a healthy rate.
Newcomer Levi Wallace provides solid length, physicality, and football IQ opposite of Witherspoon. While he is not gifted with the same level of athleticism, his understanding of both coverage schematics and route concepts help him be particularly effective in defending shallow and intermediate routes. He has shown solid patience and physicality in press man coverage, as well as various zone assignments. He has the potential to assume the Bryant McFadden role, providing physicality and sound execution of his coverage assignments, if not spectacular playmaking, opposite of Ahkello Witherspoon. Naturally, given his lack of top end speed, he can struggle to contain receivers downfield at times when unable to reroute at the line of scrimmage.
Cameron Sutton’s ability to play effectively both on the boundary and within the slot provides great versatility to the Steelers defense. While not quite as capable in press man coverage as his counterparts in Witherspoon and Wallace, Sutton’s ability to excel both in underneath zone assignments, as well as rotating to replace safety’s allow the Steelers to execute complex post snap rotations which can confuse quarterbacks. All that being said, he is not quite the blitzer and run defender that Mike Hilton was in his time in Pittsburgh, which may cause the Steelers to utilize Arthur Maulet in the slot on run downs.
Kicking things off with Jacksonville’s first offensive snap of the game, the Steelers open up in Nickel to match the Jaguars 11-personel, with Trevor Lawrence operating from the shotgun. With the Steelers sending a five man pressure and playing Cover 1 behind it, with Myles Jack adding to the rush late on a “hug” blitz, Levi Wallace aligns at seven yards depth with inside leverage on the X-receiver, Zay Jones.
At the snap, Wallace pedals patiently, staying low and working to stay in phase before planting and driving downhill as Jones breaks to the inside on a a glance route(five step slant as opposed to three step). Closing to the upfield shoulder quickly, Wallace arrives with physicality at the catch point, providing a solid contest on a ball thrown incomplete and behind the receiver.
Since Teryl Austin first joined the Steelers staff, their cornerbacks have relied on the speed turn, also known as the baseball turn, to match post routes. This allows their cornerbacks to prepare to jump out breaking routes while simultaneously protecting against the post ball. Below, with the Steelers once again in Cover 1, Witherspoon aligns in off coverage at seven yards depth with inside leverage, patiently giving ground in his pedal at the snap before opening and preparing to carry the receiver vertically.
As Christian Kirk utilizes a rocker step, head faking outside before breaking inside on a post and attempting to work the cornerbacks blind spot, Witherspoon quickly flips his head around and uses a speed turn to stay in phase and on top of the receiver on the post route. While this is a textbook rep on how to cover a post from Witherspoon, finishing on the receivers top hip, the next step in the progression would be to stack the receiver, close to the overthrow, and high point the football to secure the turnover.
Still operating out of plenty of single high looks, the Steelers will use Cover 3 as a change up to their Cover 1 look. Below, with Jacksonville facing third and long, Pittsburgh runs Cover 3, intending to force Trevor Lawrence to throw short of the sticks where the defenders can rally and make a tackle for the stop.
Serving as the SCF(seam-curl-flat) defender in Cover 3 from his slot corner position, Cam Sutton correctly works to get width and depth at the snap, occupying any intermediate throwing window. While he ends up in the right spot, he fails to keep vision of the routes developing underneath in his drop, causing him to process a mesh dump off to Marvin Jones Jr. far too late, and allowing an easy catch and run for the first down. Sutton, a veteran corner, must do a better job of keeping his vision in his drop, staying prepared to break downhill and make this stop short of the sticks.
I’ve referenced Cam Sutton’s versatility, and here he is aligned in press coverage to the boundary. At the snap, Sutton opens into a press bail, giving ground in his crossover run with his eyes glued to the receivers hip. After weaving to maintain his outside leverage, Sutton sinks his hips with the receiver, seamlessly flipping his hips to break toward the sideline on a deep out route.
What Sutton lacks in raw size and athleticism, he largely makes up for in technique and route recognition. He finishes this rep in the receivers hip pocket as the ball sails harmlessly out of bounds.
Ahkello Witherspoon’s tackling has been maligned as a weakness of his game since his time at the University of Colorado, where he was named Second Team All Pac-12 in 2016. Selected in the third round by the 49ers, Witherspoon has steadily continued to make business decisions at the NFL level, although he did show minor strides in that department late last season. This preseason has been a bit of a mixed bag, with Witherspoon making some impressive hits and showing physicality alongside some noticeable business decisions.
We see the former on a rep below with the Jaguars aligned in a tight formation, working out of 21-personel. Witherspoon aligns with heavy outside leverage at five yards depth before expanding both laterally and vertically to midpoint what is ultimately a flood concept with some window dressing. Diagnosing the levels concept, Witherspoon speed turns to break downhill and provide a physical stick on the tight end before he can turn upfield. The Steelers don’t need Witherspoon to be an elite tackler in the secondary, but they do need him to show effort and want to, an area where he’s shown some strides this preseason.
After getting caught dropping without vision earlier in the game, Sutton corrects his mistake to produce a great rep on a later rep as the SCF defender in Cover 3. This time, Sutton, aligned pre snap between the #2 and #3 receiver’s to the trips side at three yards depth, opens into a crossover run at the snap, re-routing Christian Kirk outside to the deep 1/3 defender Levi Wallace, before continuing to expand for width and depth.
Once Sutton identifies the #1 receiver, Marvin Jones Jr. breaking off a comeback route toward the sideline, Sutton flips his eyes into the backfield and continues to sink, finding himself in perfect position to highpoint the football for an interception. Unfortunately, Trevor Lawrence shows off his first round arm talent, layering the football beautifully over the outstretched arms of Sutton for a first down to Marvin Jones Jr. While the desired result may not have been achieved, Sutton’s processing is great here, and reps like this are sure to produce turnovers in the future.
While the Jaguars were able to routinely march the ball up and down the field in the first half, the Steelers first string defense, in large part to the performance of their secondary, were able to repeatedly play sound situational defense. Here, on the second of their two red zone stops, the Steelers align nickel personnel to match the Jaguars 11-personel.
Working as the slot cornerback to the field, Cam Sutton picks up Evan Engram, flowing across the formation in sprint out, carrying the tight end laterally and squeezing him to the sideline as he worked up field in scramble drill. Levi Wallace, aligned in catch technique at five yards depth with inside leverage, re-routes Marvin Jones Jr. into the sideline before working to plaster the receiver as he works along the back of the end zone in scramble drill. Ultimately, despite buying himself plenty of time to throw, Trevor Lawrence is forced to throw the ball harmlessly out of bounds, forcing Jacksonville to settle for a field goal, their second unsuccessful red zone trip of the first half.
Although the trio of cornerbacks, including Levi Wallace, finished without a pass breakup in their half of action, I was impressed by Wallace’s ability to consistently close and contest the catch point on intermediate breaking routes. Below, Wallace, aligned as the field corner, aligned with inside leverage at seven yards depth, square to the line of scrimmage, patiently pedals at the snap before opening toward the sideline to carry Christian Kirk vertically.
As the receiver sinks his hips, Wallace plants and drives downhill towards the sideline, diving to contest the catch point on the comeback. Although it was ruled a catch on the field, the Jaguars rushed to the line of scrimmage before the Steelers likely would have challenged. Regardless, it is encouraging to see Wallace consistently contesting the catch point tightly, as that should lead to ball production moving forward.
Overall, while some technical clean up, including eye discipline in zone drops, will need to be cleaned up heading into the season, it was encouraging to see the unit consistently stay in phase and contest the catch point tightly. Regardless, it is hard not to feel better about the trio of Wallace, Witherspoon and Sutton this season than what the team was working with last year, particularly with James Pierre now serving as top depth on the outside behind Wallace and Witherspoon.