Entering the 2021 offseason, it was widely understood that the Steelers front office would be faced with tough decisions in the secondary, particularly with both sub package cornerbacks, Cameron Sutton and Mike Hilton, set to be free agents. While the team predictably opted to resign the cheaper and more versatile Cameron Sutton, allowing Hilton to join the rival Cincinnati Bengals, an unforeseen decision to waive a boundary starter in Steven Nelson to create space for a Juju Smith-Schuster resigning has thrust Sutton into a new role as a boundary starter.
While the competition for the third cornerback spot, consisting of both boundary corners such as James Piere, Mark Gilbert, and Justin Layne, alongside slot options including Shakur Brown, Arthur Maulet, and Tre Norwood, could determine Sutton’s role in sub packages, his role as a boundary starter in base would seem etched in stone. Likewise, today we will be taking a deeper dive into Sutton’s work as a boundary cornerback across the 2019 and 2020 seasons to project his ability to make the transition to becoming a full time starter at the position.
Cam Sutton in Press Man Coverage
Throughout the early portion of his NFL career, in which he functioned primarily as a depth player on the boundary, our Alex Kozora rightly observed that Sutton needed to improve his physicality, both as a tackler as well as in his coverage work. Over the past two seasons, in which Sutton has flourished in his role as a versatile sub package chess piece and top backup on the boundary, Sutton displayed not only an improved sense of physicality, but also a relentless desire to create turnovers, finishing his 2020 campaign with three forced fumbles. Moreover, in his work on the boundary over the past two seasons, Sutton has consistently displayed solid patience and physicality in his press coverage work, forcing receivers off their landmarks and finishing at the catch point relentlessly. Below, on a red zone snap from a 2019 Monday Night contest against the Chargers, Sutton aligns in press coverage at three yards depth, staying patient to match Mike Williams outside stem off the line, squeezing Williams toward the sideline before turning into the receiver, and getting his left arm across to break up the back shoulder target in the end zone. Note Sutton’s ability not only to stay square on the route with smooth footwork, but also the physicality to widen Williams off his path and stay closely connected to the receivers upfield shoulder, closing off any throwing window for Phillip Rivers on the back shoulder route.
In his most recent work at the boundary position, from this year’s Wildcard Weekend loss to the Cleveland Browns, Sutton held up well in isolated matchups against the Browns receiving core, most notably the talented Jarvis Landry. Working in press man coverage against Landry, Sutton allings with outside leverage, shuffling laterally to hold his leverage against the receivers diamond release, contacting Landry at the top of his route and staying connected to the upfield shoulder against the slant route, ultimately getting his left arm across to secure the breakup. Once again, Sutton’s ability to remain patient at the line with smooth footwork, and physicality to dictate the receivers route path, ultimately allows him to limit separation, and remain in position to contest the pass cleanly at the catch point.
While certainly a more limited sample size in comparison to his work as a slot cornerback and dimebacker, Sutton’s patience and physicality both at the line of scrimmage and at the catch point should certainly generate optimism ahead of his elevation to starter status on the boundary. Moreover, Sutton’s improvement as a tackler ensures that the Steelers will continue to be able to rely heavily on Cover 1, single high sets, without the fear of allowing explosive plays of the yards after catch variety.
Cam Sutton in Off Man Coverage
While Sutton’s press coverage work has steadily improved during his first four NFL seasons, his fluidity in his backpedal and transitions make him particularly effective in off man coverage, an area which he has shined in his extensive sub package work. Below against the Chargers in 2019, Sutton stays patient in his backpedal, matching Mike Williams tempo off the line before closing on the in breaking route with a smooth T-step break, and playing the pocket with a physical left hand chop at the catch point, finishing the rep through the ground to ensure the pass breakup. While Sutton’s patience consistently keeps him in phase to close on the football, the efficiency in his transitions out of off coverage, with no wasted movement and an explosive first step, make it challenging for receivers to gain any level of separation from Sutton on short and intermediate routes.
While effective press coverage ability is a necessity for any cornerback playing the boundary position at the NFL level, different variations, such as the popular “press bail” technique, can be great tools in confusing quarterbacks pre and post snap reads. Below against the Washington Football Team this past season, after aligned in press coverage pre snap, Sutton drops into bail technique on Alex Smith’s cadence, shuffling patiently with his eyes locked on Cam Sims hips before breaking efficiently with a T-step break to get his left hand across and secure the impressive pass breakup. While Sutton is an effective player in press coverage, on this rep, he displays a great understanding of his opponent, remaining extremely patient against the slower Cam Sims, who clocked in at a 4.59 40, and trusting his ability to beat the larger framed receiver to the catch point, rather than engaging off the line, where he may have been outmuscled by the physical receiver.
Beyond his improvements in all facets of his coverage game, as well as increased physicality, perhaps the most encouraging improvement in Cam Sutton’s game this past season was his constant effort to create turnovers. Through a variety of “peanut punches” and strips, Cam Sutton finished the season with three forced fumbles, along with a quarterback hit on Josh Allen which appeared to be a forced fumble upon review. Against the Ravens this past season, Sutton closes on Mark Andrews from behind, taking a great angle to close ground before throwing a violent punch to knock the football free. After recording three forced fumbles, an interception, and eight pass breakups in a more limited sub package role, it is reasonable to enter the season with optimism that Sutton will be able to increase his ball production and ability to generate takeaways in his transition to starter level reps.
Ultimately, while the Steelers decision to cut Steven Nelson left me baffled initially, the team’s confidence in Cameron Sutton’s ability to transition into a starting role certainly has made me more comfortable with the move. Moreover, as Joe Haden, who is still an extremely effective cornerback in his own right, has seemingly lost a tinge of long speed, Cam Sutton will likely be tested with matchups against some of the league premier talents on the boundary.
While the Steelers have traditionally refused to travel their cornerbacks, Sutton’s experience in playing extensively on both the slot and the boundary could make him the ideal candidate to travel with an opposing team’s top receiver all over the field. Thus, while Nelson’s departure certainly presents concerns, they primarily come with whoever secures the sub-package cornerback role, as I am supremely confident in Sutton’s ability to thrive in the Steelers Cover 1, single high centric scheme.