With our series breaking down each position on the roster completed, it’s time to turn our focus on what is going on within each position, and on the roster as a whole. Over the course of the next few weeks, we will be taking a closer look at some of the roster battles that we expect to see unfold over the course of training camp as the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare for the start of the 2020 season.
This is not a conventional offseason, of course, for obvious reasons, which is likely to play a role in many of these battles, some in ways that we might not foresee. Generally speaking, it should favor players who have greater experience, but there’s a reason these questions are left unanswered until we get on the field.
Up for Grabs: Starting Nickel
In the Mix: Mike Hilton, Cameron Sutton
While it may not seem like it in reality, the starting slot cornerback position figures to be subject to challenge this offseason. Mike Hilton has held down that job for the past three years, but Cameron Sutton emerged as a contributor last year.
It’s important to note that both of them are heading into their fourth seasons, and both will be unrestricted free agents in 2021. There is a good chance that they will not, or will not be able to, keep both of them beyond this season, so they may have to decide which is more practical to keep, and that could influence the decision as to who plays in the nickel.
What Hilton offers best is a well-rounded game. While he is capable of playing in coverage, he also likes to be in the box and work against the run—he has among the most tackles for loss among cornerbacks since 2017—and as a blitzer.
These are areas in which he is stronger than Sutton, but the latter plays tighter coverage overall, which was his reputation going back to Tennessee, where he set a school record for passes defensed. The fact that he is taller and able to play both inside and outside is also a plus.
While not extensively, the Steelers have dabbled in using Sutton as the nickel here and there, perhaps based on a matchup or a particular game situation. He is not unfamiliar with the role, and has even started there when Hilton was injured.
The former third-round pick has logged over 500 defensive snaps over the course of the past two seasons, recording 38 tackles (two for loss, both last year), a sack, and two interceptions, with eight passes defensed.
Last season, he allowed 14 completions on 25 targets for 132 yards, just 5.3 yards per target, without surrendering a touchdown. Hilton allowed 30 receptions on 55 targets for 352 yards, allowing three touchdowns, while also registering an interception and 11 passes defensed.