The Pittsburgh Steelers made available a ‘standout’ player from today’s practice. That turned out to be James Pierre, the second-year former college free agent out of the small-school Florida Atlantic. After spending the entire 2020 season on the 53-man roster and contributing mostly on special teams, he is in the mix for a starting role in the nickel defense this season.
And he clearly has the support of his teammate, perhaps particularly the veteran Joe Haden, entering his 12th season. Haden has been a leader of the secondary since arriving here in 2007, and has helped nurture the growth of young defensive backs, as Pierre has seen first-hand.
“He always tells me that I can play, so for him to tell me I can play, it’s like, I’ve got to be like, no drop-off”, he told reporters. “What he does, I’ve got to get in and do the exact same thing. He always tells me, no pressure, just play even-keeled, it’s not too big for you, you can do this. It’s just motivation to keep me going”.
It may be that Haden and Pierre play the most snaps on the outside at cornerback this season, if indeed the latter can win the starting nickel defender role. Should he be on the field, it is likely that it would be Cameron Sutton, the other ‘base’ starter, who kicks inside to man the slot.
Pierre did play some snaps in Haden’s role at the end of last season. The veteran missed the final game of the regular season, and then the postseason game, after testing positive for COVID-19. Pierre saw a handful of snaps in both games as a dime defender, playing left outside cornerback, with Sutton moving inside. He logged a deep pass defensed in that role during the playoffs.
But he has very minimal defensive in-game experience to speak of at this point in his career, and of course that can only come with time and experience. Once you get into the league, it doesn’t matter how you got here, as head coach Mike Tomlin likes to tell his players. It’s what you do once you arrive.
And so far, even though he’s had limited opportunities due to the fact that he came in during a pandemic, the coaches have apparently consistently liked what they’ve seen, and believe he could be in line for a bigger and bigger role as his career develops.
But you can only take one step at a time. It’s a start to look good during minicamp and to pick off your starting quarterback, but then you have to look the part in training camp, then in the preseason, and then for a long stretch in real games that count.