With Steelers Minicamp wrapping up, a lot of conversation has been had about the young and relatively unproven options in Pittsburgh’s secondary, and more specifically, who figures to replace the loss of Mike Hilton at the nickel spot in their sub package defense. While there have been many names brought up by the members of the Steelers Depot crew, one name that surfaced when defensive assistant/secondary coach Teryl Austin addressed the media Wednesday was that of second-year defender Antoine Brooks Jr. Austin said:
“Yes, he is definitely an option. That’s where he is 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 still has a ways to go. But I think the progress is coming. I think it’s really important that we did have an offseason this year and that’ll allow him to have an opportunity to win a job in there.”
As Alex Kozora mentioned in his article on Brooks Jr., he only logged 29 defensive snaps last season, most coming in a Week Nine rout of the Bengals at home, playing the big nickel role for the Steelers’ defense. When Brooks’ name was mentioned as a potential answer to the gap left by Hilton leaving for the Bengals in FA, I was initially confused, seeing Brooks more as a linebacker/strong safety hybrid than a nickel corner. Sure, he could figuratively play the dime backer role as the team’s sixth defensive back, but I wasn’t very keen on the idea of him logging starting snaps over the opposing team’s slot receiver.
After diving into more of Brooks’ tape however from the limited 2020 season snaps he saw as well as his film from college, I understand the intrigue of playing him in that big nickel role. Brooks is an extremely physical player near the LOS, playing aggressive downfield as a violent hitter in run support and on short passes. Just check out this play where he sniffs out the WR screen pass and triggers downhill in a hurry, blowing up the receiver in the backfield, planting him into the turf for the big loss of yardage.
We see a similar play here against the Hoosiers where he reads the swing route by the back coming to the right side of the field, getting around the blocker and getting the stop for little-to-no gain.
Mike Hilton was known to be one of the best blitzing nickels in the league with his timing and pursuit. Brooks does a great job of this as well, being the size of a linebacker and playing with good strength at the point of attack to get around blocks and chase the football. Here we see him cheating inside from the big nickel spot with safety help overtop, showing great dip underneath the RT on this pass rush and getting to #9 Trace McSorley for the big sack on second down.
Now I had no concerns when it came to Brooks’ ability to defend the run and blitz from the nickel spot, outside of a couple missed tackles where he needs to come in more controlled. However, what did concern me was his ability to play coverage on slot receivers, especially ones that could challenge him vertically. He only ran a 4.64 40 at the NFL Combine and his lack of fluidity and change of direction ability was well-documented coming out, raising questions as to whether he would do best as a sub package linebacker. One play stuck out in evaluating the prospect where he was asked to cover #6 Devin Duvernay up the seam on the vertical, and Brooks has no chance of keeping up with Duvernay as he easily gets separation downfield and catches the long walk-in touchdown.
However, after watching more of Brooks college tape, I saw moments where he did hold his own in coverage from the nickel spot. Take, for example, this play against Towson where he runs with the slot receiver on the fade concept to the sideline, staying on his hip and turns his head around at the last second to play the ball and actually comes down with the INT. I would have liked to see a more fluid hip turn on this play, but overall, he does a good job staying sticky in coverage down the field and makes a play on the ball.
Here’s another example against Texas where Brooks picks up the slot receiver near the ten-yard line, getting hands-on in coverage, but transitions well to run on his hip in coverage to avoid drawing the flag. He stays with his man as he breaks inside, playing with good leverage on the route, and forces the QB to go to the sideline with the football, resulting in an incompletion.
The cool thing is, when you plug in the limited sample size of Brooks in the NFL, you see this same understanding of playing with leverage in coverage as well from the slot. Here against the Bengals, Brooks draws the task of trying to cover #85 Tee Higgins in the slot. He stays square to Higgins off the snap and doesn’t panic, giving Higgins cushion but doesn’t keep going backward either. See how he forces Higgins inside with outside leverage on his outside shoulder, giving him an inside step on the route, but is right on his back hip once Higgins makes his break, discouraging #9 Joe Burrow from going there with the football and instead goes to his outside receiver on the right boundary. Not an impressive play, but Brooks shows he is in the right position when matched up with a good receiver.
Now watch on this play as Brooks plays in the slot on the left side of the defensive formation. He again plays with good leverage on the route, giving the receiver inside with one safety rolling don and another overtop to aid in pass defense. However, compare to the Texas game, Brooks carries the receiver well up the seam on this play, getting his hands on him as he approaches but turns around and stays on his back hip to avoid drawing the penalty, carrying him vertically while the other defenders in coverage can converge and minimize the passing lane, making Burrow go elsewhere with the football.
On this play against Cincinnati, we see Brooks line up on the right side of the defensive formation in the nickel over the slot receiver. He again allows the receiver to get inside leverage, understanding he has help inside from #34 Terrell Edmunds, who both converge initially on the receiver, but Edmunds breaks off to help once he sees Burrow’s eyes are locked into another target downfield. Brooks is able to stay with his man as he breaks to the sideline, but the receiver does get some space on the double move when he cuts it upfield on the vertical on Brooks initially. Brooks turns his head around to recover, but by this time the ball has already been thrown to another target and the pass was incomplete. Overall, I’m pleased with the coverage look by Brooks on this play, but the double move can be a little concerning with Brooks’ lack of ability to flip his hips to turn and run when facing more agile slot receivers as a full-time nickel.
Overall, I came away more impressed with Brooks’ play from the nickel than I initially would have expected. Like Hilton, Brooks is a physical defensive back that will be a good piece to have in run support, on blitz packages, and can sniff out quick screens to the boundary like Hilton did for Pittsburgh. The coaching staff has put an emphasis on physicality from their nickel defender, and Brooks definitely fits the bill there. The question is whether Brooks can hold up in coverage with the best of them in the slot consistently to be a regular starter at the nickel. While he showed some good traits and instincts in coverage, he did have help from the inside on a lot of his reps, and the lack of fluidity in his changes can give be cause for concern when facing the likes of Keenan Allen and Jarvis Landry who are polished route runners.
Still, while Hilton was a great slot corner, coverage (let alone deep coverage for that matter) wasn’t always his strong suit either, as he was best playing what was in front of him and a subpar athlete when it came to straight-line speed as well. While he definitely was better moving laterally than Brooks, I do see where the coaching staff is coming from with him as a possible option based on his traits and tape for this role. Personally, I would like to see the likes of Shakur Brown, Arthur Maulet, and even possibly James Pierre win the slot role to have more of a cornerback-like body in that spot who can run with receivers regularly.
However, if Brooks continues to progress with his first real offseason and shows continued improvements in his instincts, there isn’t much reason to suggest he can be a candidate to win the nickel job, if not be the dime backer in Pittsburgh’s sub packages come the regular season.
What are your thoughts on Antoine Brooks Jr.? Do you think he is a candidate to win the nickel job, or is simply a depth piece as a strong safety/linebacker hybrid player? Please leave your thoughts below in the comments section and thanks again for reading!