Pittsburgh’s secondary, a source of strength for one of the NFL’s best defenses the last two seasons, suffered a rough offseason this year. The Steelers released lockdown cornerback Steven Nelson on March 23, just seven days after long-time slot corner Mike Hilton signed as a free agent with the rival Cincinnati Bengals. That’s two of the team’s top cornerbacks gone in one offseason, or in other words 40 percent of the team’s starting secondary.
Left untouched was the Steelers’ starting pair of safeties. All-Pro Minkah Fitzpatrick returns as one of the best in football and a candidate for a big-money extension. Opposite him, Terrell Edmunds is back to reunite the tandem for a third consecutive season as starters. With corner Joe Haden, those three are the leaders and veteran starters of a suddenly much younger secondary, and Edmunds addressed the team’s new look in the defensive backfield Tuesday.
“We definitely lost some good guys, Mike and Steve,” Edmunds said during a minicamp media session Tuesday morning. “But you know, Cam was pretty much in our mix last year, too. He’s already adjusted to us, we know how Cam plays. We know that he’s a good player.”
That Cam is Cameron Sutton, a player who, like Hilton, made six starts at cornerback for the Steelers in 2020. While Pittsburgh allowed or forced other corners to leave, they made sure Sutton stayed, with a two-year, $9 million contract. Sutton’s signing promotes him from his role as a third corner alongside Hilton to the team’s definite No. 2 opposite Haden. Given his four years with the team, Sutton is also now a veteran leader of the secondary, in a career that has seen him intercept a pass each of the last three years, increase his passes defensed every season, and force three fumbles in 2020, despite playing as a reserve or only part-time starter.
Sutton is making the biggest leap from 2020 to 2021, but he is not the only new player stepping in to replace Pittsburgh’s losses. Edmunds made sure to mention some of the other new faces playing alongside him in the secondary in 2021.
“We have some young guys stepping in, we have James Pierre, Justin Layne, all the young guys that we drafted,” Edmunds said. “So we’ve got a lot of young guys in the mix that can come in and help us out. So we just have to keep on working, and right now this is the time to really merge and become as one.”
Pierre and Layne already have experience with the Steelers. Layne was a third-round pick as a developmental project in 2019. Pierre was the player called upon to pick up snaps when Haden was unable to play in this year’s postseason game against Cleveland.
With those two returning cornerbacks, Pittsburgh added via the draft and undrafted free agency. Tre Norwood, the team’s seventh-round pick, is able to line up at corner or as a safety, for snaps when Pittsburgh wants to bring Edmunds or Fitzpatrick closer to the box. Shakur Brown was one of the best UDFAs available, and is another cornerback option for the Steelers. Clairton high school star and Penn State safety Lamont Wade also signed with the Steelers, in part with the intent of helping replace Nelson and Hilton.
There are a lot of moving pieces in Pittsburgh’s secondary. But as Edmunds said, minicamp is a great time to figure the mix out and come together as a group.