Pittsburgh Steelers assistant coach Teryl Austin earlier this morning told reporters that they were focusing on keeping cornerback Cameron Sutton on the outside in order to get a good look at their options for slot defenders this season, in the hopes of finding something as close to a one-for-one replacement of Mike Hilton as possible.
Evidently, that does not include second-year cornerback James Pierre, who has been receiving plenty of praise of his own so far this offseason, particularly since the start of mandatory minicamp. A 2020 college free agent out of Florida Atlantic, he is auditioning for the starting nickel role, but if he does get it, it is assumed he will play outside and kick Sutton inside.
“Inside, it’s just more of your heart”, Pierre told reporters after practice about what it takes to play the slot position. “Right now, I don’t know too much about [the slot position]. Right now I’m just working [outside] corner, but inside, it’s not like something that we’ve talked about working at”.
The 6’2”, 185-pound cornerback would seem to be best suited to playing on the outside, anyway. There is buzz about him, seemingly even around the team, about his potential for the future, even hinting at the possibility that he could eventually be a full-time starter, but he needs to get on the field first.
It was impressive enough that he even made the 53-man roster a year ago as a college free agent out of a small school during a pandemic that eliminated Spring workouts and the preseason entirely. But he stuck around all year, demonstrated capability on special teams, and even got a couple dozen snaps on defense, registering a deep pass defensed in the postseason.
It’s only football in shorts now, but it’s obviously better to look impressive under any circumstances than the opposite. Of course, it will ultimately be the preseason that determines who plays where and when. What we do know is that Sutton will be an every-down player. Who the fifth defensive back is will determine where he sees the majority of his time.
Joe Haden is the starter on the opposite side of Sutton, the two who will almost always be on the field, but Pierre does have competition, from the likes of 2019 third-round pick Justin Layne, veteran free agent Arthur Maulet, and a slew of rookies like Tre Norwood, Shakur Brown, Mike Gilbert, and Lamont Wade.
After practice, Tomlin talked about what they were looking for in a slot defender, emphasizing physicality and blitz ability. That’s not necessarily Pierre’s game. But if he can play well while he’s on the outside, that won’t matter.