Joe Haden’s entire career has been spent out wide, working receivers along the sidelines. Covering the deep threats and many of the game’s elite playmakers, it is a whole different world for him out there compared to what the slot cornerbacks deal with playing inside.
Making that switch from the inside to joining Haden out wide in 2021 is Cameron Sutton, promoted from the team’s third corner and 20-30 snaps per game to the primary starter opposite Haden, playing 50-70 snaps a game and facing a different type of assignment. In a Zoom interview on Wednesday from the team’s minicamp, Haden offered some thoughts on the adjustment ahead of Sutton, and how well he can do making the switch.
“It’s a different ball game on the inside. Those are the little slot receivers, the route trees are totally different, it’s a whole lot of different timing and stuff like that. But with Cam Sutton, that’s what he does. He’s just a great inside and outside guy. Like Steven Nelson, both of those dudes,” Haden said. “I mean, I’m more of the outside guy. Those dudes can hold that nickel spot down. Honestly, I don’t want no parts of the slot. But Cam is able to play both at such a high level, and that’s the same thing with Steve. Those two dudes are just able to go inside and outside. But I think Cam, he’s a Swiss Army knife, he can do a little bit of everything, but I think he’s going to be able to strive on the outside, also.”
Drawing a lot of comparisons between Nelson and Sutton, that’s the exact dream scenario the Steelers are hoping for, is that Sutton can become the player that he is replacing. Beginning his career as a slot corner with Kansas City, Nelson kicked out wide for the team and had a breakout season. That earned him a three-year, $25.5 million contract from the Steelers, the richest free agent deal in team history. Nelson was one of the best corners in football in 2019, and played at a high level in 2020 before Pittsburgh released him to save money against the cap.
His release opened up a spot for Sutton, re-signed by Pittsburgh on a two-year, $9 million contract this offseason. His time with the Steelers has been spent almost entirely in the slot, where he has done well even with limited reps. Now the team wants him to make the move that Nelson made with Kansas City. Sutton profiles well to handle the move (he, Nelson, and Haden are the same height, and just a few pounds apart), and the team’s No. 1 corner the last four seasons gave his vote of confidence.
“The studying, it’s a lot harder when you’re playing the nickel back position. We have a lot of defenses, and on the outside corner, it’s a lot more basic. On the inside you’re determining when you’re motioning, when you’re going over, it’s so many different calls, when you’re blitzing. It’s a lot. And Cam and Mike [fellow 2020 slot corner Mike Hilton], they just did a really, really good job,” Haden said. “He’s a football player, he knows the entire defense, he knows what’s going on. And then being able to cover those smaller, quicker dudes, you’ve gotta be very, very, very quick, and that’s just what he does.