Headlines were made last week when Steelers defensive backs coach Teryl Austin proclaimed that fourth year cornerback Cameron Sutton would have an expanded role in the upcoming 2020 season. While Austin did note that the Steelers were not planning on creating new packages to expand Sutton’s playing time, he simultaneously speculated that the packages Sutton currently plays in could see an uptick in usage. That being said, Sutton enters the season as a swiss army knife for the Steelers elite defensive unit, and today we will take a more in depth look into the roles he can and will fill in 2020.
Sutton’s Nickel Role
While Mike Hilton has made a living in the backfield over the past three seasons, in 2019 the Steelers finally realized that asking a 5’9” 183 pound slot cornerback who clocked a middling 4.55 second 40 time in Indianapolis presents an exploitable weakness. Rather, the Steelers chose to sub the lengthier 5’11” 188 pound Cameron Sutton, a more capable and talented player in man coverage, in favor of Mike Hilton in obvious passing situations.
Expect this to continue in 2020, as it provides an effective deterrent against teams who play through a “big slot” such as the Titans with A.J. Brown, the Cowboys with Amari Cooper, and the Bengals with Tyler Boyd. Moreover, as the Steelers played nickel on over 50% of their defensive snaps in 2019, expect Sutton to log a significant number of snaps in nickel, with his playing time and value increasing based on weekly matchup and opponent personnel.
Sutton’s Dime Role
While the Steelers employed dime personnel at a much lower rate, only opting for dime on 17% of their snaps in 2019, expect that number to grow in 2020 with the departure of Mark Barron. Much to the chagrin of the Steelers fanbase, Tomlin and company opted to deploy Barron in favor of Vince Williams in the team’s nickel packages.
While Tomlin and Butler’s faith in Barron remains ill placed, their choice to deploy him over Vince Williams on passing downs shows their lack of faith in Vince within that department. Hence, their lack of faith in Vince may lead the team down a similar path used in 2018, where they employed dime in a more prominent role to disguise William’s perceived coverage struggles.
The major difference, replacing a washed up Morgan Burnett with a versatile man coverage specialist in Cameron Sutton. In this role, Sutton can provide competent man coverage against slots, tight ends, and running backs, as well as making plays out of underneath zones, providing far more range than Vince Williams at the linebacker position.
One of the major added wrinkles that Sutton’s range and athleticism provides is his ability to masterfully execute post snap rotations from his Dimebacker spot to occupying a deep ⅓ as a free safety. Sutton appears to have a natural feel at the free safety position while weaving to the post, and made multiple plays on the football while playing in this disguise invert cover 3 look. An added benefit of employing these inversion looks is allowing Minkah to invert post snap and play closer to the line of scrimmage, making it harder for teams to avoid him the way they did in the last 8 weeks of the 2019 campaign.
Sutton’s Backup Outside Cornerback and Safety Roles
Although Austin’s endorsement of Sutton is sure to mean an expansion of Sutton’s role in nickel and dime, an injury at the Nickel, Outside Cornerback, or Free Safety positions could lend way to even more playing time for Sutton. Sutton provides invaluable versatility, standing as the first man up at both the Nickel and Boundary Cornerback positions. In the event of an injury to any of Mike Hilton, Joe Haden, or Steven Nelson, which is all but certain to occur over the course of a potential 16 game season, Sutton will start in their absence, and if last year’s San Diego performance serves as an indicator, will flourish in this role.
Interestingly enough, with the team lacking a competent backup at the Free Safety spot on the roster(sorry Curtis Riley), I believe that Sutton could serve as an emergency backup in the event of an injury to Minkah Fitzpatrick. Sutton has shown the natural movement skills and tackling necessary for a post safety, and his elite Football IQ and understanding of the defense would help ensure that communication continues smoothly between the members of the secondary. Thus, think of Sutton as a basketball 6th man, providing quality depth at every position within the secondary.
With Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton both entering contract years, a decision is looming on the horizon at the slot position. While Sutton will almost surely come at a cheaper price, in large part due to logging less snaps than the former, cost savings and coverage versatility may lead the Steelers toward retaining Sutton and letting Hilton walk. Factor in the potential for University of Miami UDFA Trajan Bandy, who possesses a similar frame and skillset to Hilton, replacing some of that early down run defense out of the nickel position, and Sutton may prove the more invaluable of the two. Finally, if Justin Layne fails to develop before father time eventually catches up to Joe Haden, Cam Sutton provides the Steelers with an insurance policy at the Boundary Corner position, and has the potential to become a long term starter on the outside.
Overall, expect Sutton to flourish in an expanded role, continuing to provide elite coverage out of the nickel and dime packages, as well as filling in adequately for injuries across the secondary, particularly at either cornerback position.
Attached below is a video breakdown I did on Cam Sutton’s 2019 tape earlier in the offseason, if you prefer a more visual representation of much of what was talked about in this article.