The Pittsburgh Steelers have something of a question on their hands when it comes to tackling their secondary this offseason. You see, they lost two starters at the cornerback position from last season. And on the surface, it appears as though their plan may be to use one player to replace both.
Veteran slot cornerback Mike Hilton signed with the Cincinnati Bengals in free agency. The team also chose to release Steven Nelson due to salary cap limitations. The re-signed Cameron Sutton now moves up from the top backup cornerback and dime defender. He is likely a starting outside cornerback who moves into the slot for sub-packages. At least that’s what it appears.
“I’m not in those coaching staff meetings, so I don’t know the exact plan that they’re building right now for that nickel back position,” Robert Spillane said earlier this offseason during an interview with Missi Matthews, “but I know that Cam Sutton is a great, versatile player who could do many things, so maybe he ends up there, maybe not.”
The currently available alternatives on the roster include two young outside cornerbacks in Justin Layne and James Pierre. Both could come in and play on the outside in sub-packages. A veteran added to the practice squad at the end of last season, Trevor Williams has inside and outside experience.
Whatever personnel ends up on the field, the Steelers and the defenders understand they’re dealing with significant loss this offseason. Especially with the change at the nickel position, given how versatile a defender Hilton is.
“I know that we complement well with that nickel back position, with Mike Hilton,” Spillane said. “I’m sure the coaching staff is doing everything they can to get somebody that they trust in that position. I know that we’ll be able to figure it out come the season.”
Hilton’s skill set from the slot is so rare that when he missed a stretch of games last season, in order to try to replicate some of the things that he can offer in the box, head coach Mike Tomlin employed a three-outside linebacker grouping at times, using rookie Alex Highsmith and allowing him to get on the field.
Sutton will not offer the same level of play against the run or as a pass rusher that the Steelers got out of Hilton over the course of the past four years. He’s simply not the same kind of player, and really, there aren’t that many out there.
Assuming that he does end up playing in the slot, however, it’s possible that he could represent an upgrade in terms of coverage ability. Sutton does play tighter coverage, and also offers superior size in comparison.