James Pierre signed with the Steelers as an UFA at the conclusion of the 2020 last season. An early entry into the draft, Pierre initially coming to the University of Miami back in 2016 but switched his commitment to North Carolina in February of the same year. Pierre was denied admission and switched his commitment to Syracuse, but was later deemed academically ineligible by the NCAA, and then transferred to Florida Atlantic where he would stay for his college career. In three seasons with the Owls, Pierre recorded 120 total tackles, 18 pass breakups, 8.5 TFLs, and three interceptions.
While coming from a non-Power-5 program, the recruiting interest in the talent of Pierre was on display in camp in front of the coaching staff, making Pierre the only undrafted free agent to make the opening-day roster for Pittsburgh. He saw virtually no action at the beginning of the season outside of contributing on special teams but earned 35 total snaps at CB to end the season including the Wildcard Playoff loss to Cleveland via the information provided by Pro Football Reference.
While these may seem like lowly totals, Pierre was the sixth option on the depth chart coming into the 2020 campaign and actually surpassed fellow CB Justin Layne for starting snaps on the outside when Joe Haden was played on the COIVD-19 list to end the season. Coming into Year Two, Pierre will be competing with the likes of Layne, as well as a bunch of UDFA CBs brought in after the draft for a significant uptick in play time for the Steelers in 2021.
So, what do the Steelers currently have in James Pierre? I’m glad you asked. When initially plugging in the tape on Pierre’s limited snaps in 2020, one thing constantly stood out: physicality. While being only 185lb at a lengthy 6’2, Pierre is more than willing to stick his face in the fan and aid in run support as an aggressive tackler. Like on this play against the Jaguars, we see that Pierre is quick to react to the WR screen and immediately drives on the football, showing good downfield burst upon recognition and gets the wrap up tackle on the receiver for a loss on the play.
This aggressiveness was on full display back in college as well, as he had no trouble driving on the football in the run game. On this play against Ohio State, we see Pierre come off the CB blitz and track down #1 Justin Fields on the option run, shooting his hips and taking Fields’ legs out from underneath him for the tackle in the backfield.
Pierre, for being a slender defensive back, puts his body on the line in run support and shows no fear when taking on blocks which you love to see in a Pittsburgh-style corner. Here Pierre comes on the CB blitz from the right side of the field and meets the pulling H-Back in the hole, putting his shoulder into him and taking on contact, forcing the runner to cut up inside for the rest of the defense to rally to the football and tackle the back for a minimal gain.
Now, Pierre has primarily played as a boundary corner during his time with the Owls and in his first season in Pittsburgh, but his willingness and usage on run support and on the blitz give off vibes of what former slot corner Mike Hilton provided as a Swiss Army Knife type of defender that was honestly more effective near the LOS in run defense and as a blitzer than he was as a pure cover man. Below are a couple of clips of Hilton coming off of the edge in run support and being used as a pass rusher, displaying that immediacy in his blitz to get home to the ball and make a play.
I know that Pierre has been dubbed a boundary-only CB by some and Hilton as a primary nickel defender but stick with me for a moment on this one. Athletically, there isn’t much separating the two coming out of college as seen below:
James Pierre Combine Measurables:
Arm: 31 1/4”
Hand: 8 1/2”
3 Cone: 7.02
Mike Hilton Pro Day Measurables:
3 Cone: 6.86
Obviously, the height and density of the two players is the key difference here, being that Pierre and Hilton are similar weights but Pierre having the lower BMI compared to Hilton who is more compact. However, the athletic testing is fairly similar when comparing long speed and explosiveness having an identical vertical jump. Hilton wins in the change-of-direction/quickness department over Pierre, but Pierre is pretty solid for a corner of his length. Like on this play in the playoff game against the Browns, we see Pierre being able to adjust to #82 Rashard Higgins in coverage on the boundary, being able to turn his shoulders and hips to stay in-phase and contest the jump ball attempt on the sideline.
Here’s the full aerial view of the play as well, showing Pierre’s ability to stay sticky in coverage and quickly adjust to the route to be in position to contest the pass.
Now this is not to suggest that Pierre is a direct comparison to Mike Hilton or that he should make a full-time move to the slot to play nickel corner. Rather, this is to suggest that Pierre could be capable of moving inside, providing that feisty aggressiveness as a run defender, blitzer, and cover man on slot receivers or tight ends split out in the slot. His long speed isn’t the greatest, much like Hilton, and while he is a long corner that has the frame of a traditional boundary defender, the likes of Eric Rowe, D.J. Hayden, and P.J. Williams are players that are taller in stature that have manned the slot position, so the notion that “slot corners have to be short” doesn’t have to always be the case if the player has the traits for the position.
While having limited snaps at outside corner with Pittsburgh, this is where Pierre’s experience comes from going back to his days at FAU. Even when he is out of position, Pierre does a great job of playing under control and not panicking when his back is to the football. On this play with the Owls, we see Pierre give up outside leverage on the end zone fade but stays on the play and plays the ball through #3 James Proche’s hands, knocking the ball down for the PBU with his back to the ball the entire time.
On this play in the playoff game against the Browns, we see Pierre lined up at LCB in man coverage on Rashard Higgins. He does a good job staying tight on Higgins on the start of his route but gives up a little inside separation when Higgins as he lets Higgins push off his inside shoulder to get a step on him. Pierre’s transition could’ve been better when looking at his feet and hips in close quarters with Higgins, but at the same time, he is in good position in trail to contest the pass should it come his way. He again doesn’t have the greatest foot quickness, but again his length and size do help him minimize passing lanes to deter QBs from throwing a pass they think he can contest.
Overall, I would think it’s fair to say that Pierre is in position to contribute to the secondary going into Year Two after primarily paying his dues as a special team’s player and reserve during his rookie campaign. Athletically, he is a better mover in space and changing direction than his fellow running mate Justin Layne in terms of flipping his hips and matching receivers in coverage. He also is very physical at the catch point and when playing close to the LOS, being a willing tackler and has the ability to be used on blitz packages from the outside. Depending on what the likes of Shakur Brown, Lamont Wade, and recent signing Arthur Maulet provide, I would like to see Pierre get snaps inside at the nickel as well as playing on the outside to see where he has the greatest impact.
If the plan is to have Sutton outside, it would be ideal to have someone primarily man the slot instead of constantly moving guys at different spots which could lead to the infamous “communication issues” Pittsburgh has suffered on the back end of the defense seemingly the last decade. Pierre also could be the guy that the team rolls out to the boundary corner opposite Joe Haden should they decide to move Sutton into the slot when they go 11-personnel.
While Pierre, like much of Pittsburgh’s current options at CB outside of Haden and Sutton, are virtually unproven, I do think that this study highlights the traits and play demeanor to expand his role and give the team a viable option on the outside or even possibly inside in 2021.
What are your thoughts on James Pierre and his role for 2021? Do you think he can earn a starting role on the outside or potentially kick inside, or should be relegated to a reserve role for other options on the roster? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below, and thanks again for reading!