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Erick Hallett’s Confidence Fuels Breakout Needed in Defensive Secondary



As Pitt trudged off the field after losing to Western Michigan last season at what-was-then Heinz Field, it was a particularly tough day for the defense.

Despite an inspired effort from Kenny Pickett against the Broncos’ defense, Pitt fell to Western Michigan 44-41 at home. It was a crushing blow for a team that started off with a 2-0 record — especially after knocking off Tennessee at Neyland Stadium.

Erick Hallett had a particularly rough afternoon against Western Michigan last season, targeted heavily by WMU’s Kaleb Eleby, and it was a turning point not just for Hallett but for Pitt’s defense as a whole. And while Hallett would go through further learning experiences against teams like Miami and Virginia, he never hung his head. He made it a point to build a level of consistency.

Hallett emerged down the stretch for Pitt, picking off Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman twice in the ACC championship game, and he worked all spring and summer to build upon that consistency entering this season.

“I think you guys asked me about this at the beginning of camp, of just where (Hallett) was from the beginning of this season to the end of the season,” Cory Sanders, Pitt’s safeties coach, said Tuesday. “You talk about the experience, you talk about the reps, as experience and reps come, comes confidence. The more you do something, the more confident you are. You see that carrying over from the bowl game, from the ACC championship game and you see that in these first two games.”

Erick Hallett (31) – November 11, 2021 David Hague/PSN

Hallett has started the last 20 games at free safety for Pitt. He started the final four games of the 2020 season — helping to fill the void left by Paris Ford’s opt-out — and hasn’t looked back. He started all 14 games last season, to mixed results, and through the first two games of the season, he’s been one of the most consistent defenders on the roster.

Hallett, after a season in which he graded out as one of Pitt’s weaker defensive players, has started off this season on a strong note. He’s graded out as one of Pitt’s best defenders across both run defense and coverage this season.

With nine targets his way this season, according to Pro Football Focus, he’s allowed just five completions for 30 yards — just six yards per reception. His stats aren’t especially eye-popping, nine tackles (seven solo), a tackle for loss, a pass breakup and two fumble recoveries, but that’s solid production.

According to PFF, opposing quarterbacks have a 62.3 quarterback rating — a team-high (team-low?) — when targeting Hallett, and he’s added five tackles and a stop solely during his passing snaps. And he’s taken the most coverage snaps on the team.

Hallett has actually taken the most defensive snaps on the team so far this season, and his run defense — since he hasn’t taken any snaps in pass rush — is rated even higher than his coverage stats. He’s racked two tackles (one solo), a stop and missed just one tackle in his 58 snaps in run defense.

With a team-high 151 defensive snaps so far this season, Hallett has played all across the secondary. He’s racked up 114 snaps in the slot, 27 in the box, nine as the free safety and even a snap at cornerback. It’s been a season in which Hallett has played well, and he wants the entire unit to reach the level established last season.

Pittsburgh Panthers defensive back Erick Hallett (31) September 1, 2022 David Hague PSN

“I think we’ve played well, but I think there’s always room to improve,” Hallett said Wednesday. “Me as well as the other guys. We’re striving to be champions. And in that, we want to practice like champions, prepare like champions and play like champions. And I think, shoot, if we let up 10 yards passing, we’re always going to feel like we could do a little bit better.”

Hallett was only directly targeted by Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker three times Saturday, twice in throws to Jaylin Hyatt and once to Jacob Warren. It resulted in one reception for seven yards.

“He’s had some targets at him,” Sanders said. “Jaylin Hyatt is a fast runner out of the slot, kid was a 10.2 out of high school and you see Erick sit down in there, be patient, challenge him and run step for step with him, so I think you’ve seen him continue to roll over that confidence in these first two games.”

It’s been a battle for Pitt’s secondary, as a whole, to match up with the likes of WVU’s Bryce Ford-Wheaton and Tennessee’s Cedric Tillman, but as a whole, Sanders has liked what he’s seen in communication from the unit — the entire back seven. The linebackers, the cornerbacks and safeties.

“It’s been good; it’s been good,” Sanders said. “I feel like the first two weeks, the guys have played really well. Obviously, there’s been some very good crowds there, some things to overcome from a loudness standpoint. I think they’ve done a good job of being demonstrative and being loud with their voices to make sure everyone’s on the same page.”

Hallett said that it isn’t set as to who calls defensive plays for Pitt, whether it’s him or SirVocea Dennis, but it comes down to the situation. It’s a defense that has developed a legitimate closeness. And Hallett has just enjoyed being around his fellow defensive backs — and defenders.

“I’m enjoying the meetings, I know it’s only week two or week three, but I’m just enjoying going out there and practicing with them, playing with them,” Hallett said. “I feel like we’re really cohesive in the way we communicate, the way we fly around. I think there’s always room for improvement, of course, but being that it’s only week two, I think there’s a lot of room to grow.”

Sep 12, 2020; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers defensive back Erick Hallett (31) against at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

With Hallett and Brandon Hill, there’s a level of experience at the safety position. The twp played nearly snap together last season, and with Marquis Williams, M.J. Devonshire, A.J. Woods and Rashad Battle at cornerback, it’s a unit with a significant amount of familiarity.

It’s tough to play as a defensive back in Pitt’s defensive scheme, especially as a cornerback, but Hallett has emerged as a reliable leader on the backend of the defense so far this season. Hill was a known entity, and Hallett was a question mark. But through two games, Hallett has been a legitimate stud. And that could make all the difference this season.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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1 year ago

Last year’s game against Western Michigan was not a fair comparison. The following week Pitt was going to start a successful division season. Against WMU, the defense ran a basic defense in the second half and left the crossing pattern open. After the game their coach said we disrespected them. Narduzzi, to his credit, was looking at a bigger prize.

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