Replacing Mike Hilton’s slot duties won’t be easy. Hilton was the near-perfect version of an NFL slot corner. Tough, tenacious, thriving as a blitzer and against the run. But unless Cincinnati is feeling generous and wants to give him back, Pittsburgh will have to find their next man up. In a Q&A session with reporters on Wednesday, defensive assistant/secondary coach Teryl Austin threw sophomore Antoine Brooks Jr.’s hat into the ring.
“Yes, he is an option,” Austin confirmed. “That’s where he’s working. When you looked at him coming out of Maryland, he was listed as a safety, but he basically played as a nickel type position and he was very productive there. So that’s where he’s been working and what he’s doing and he’s still got a ways to go. But I think the progress is coming. I think it’s really important that we did have an off season this year and that’ll allow him to have an opportunity to win a job in there.”
A 6th round pick, Brooks played just 29 defensive snaps as a rookie, most of them coming against the Bengals were he was used in a big-nickel role. He was even less of a factor on special teams, logging just ten total snaps, effectively making his rookie season a redshirt year. But as Austin mentioned, having his first full offseason under his belt can hopefully accelerate his sophomore season.
Austin recognized Brooks has much to prove before seeing significant time on the Steelers’ defense.
“But there’s still a long ways to go. And we’re just going to see how it plays out. But I do like his progress. He is working hard at it and I think that’s, that’s really the position that he can really help us move forward.”
Based off those comments, Brooks is a name we should be discussing more for slot duties. There’s a chance he could play in the Steelers’ dime package as their 6th defensive back, Pittsburgh needs to fill that role too, but no one is in the driver’s seat for the slot job unless the team decides to keep Sutton there. For the spring, Austin is letting other guys rotate in the slot to see if anyone else stands out.
“The way I’m looking at it is, I know Cam can play inside. So right now, he is working outside and we’re letting these other guys work inside to see what we have. And I think that’s the proper way to do it. To make sure we evaluate them, give them many opportunities to learn and see where they can go inside.”
Other options to play in the slot include rookies Tre Norwood and Shakur Brown, veteran Arthur Maulet, and even possibly a player like James Pierre, though he’s more likely to play on the outside.