The Steelers are searching for answers when it comes to piecing together their secondary after losing both Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton in free agency. Or rather, exploring answers would probably be a better characterization, because they have already assembled the possibilities. It’s now a matter of finding the right fits.
Cameron Sutton will become the fourth every-down member of the secondary, but where he plays most will be determined by who is their nickel defender. Most are assuming it will be James Pierre, which would result in the Steelers kicking Sutton into the slot.
Mike Prisuta offered a different perspective for the team’s website, but in a video recap review of mandatory minicamp and in an observational post detailing observations from the three-day practice sessions. He contends, in so many words, that it’s Antoine Brooks Jr.’s job to lose.
“It’s pretty clear”, he said, that “Antoine Brooks is first in line for Mike Hilton’s nickel cornerback job. There’s been a lot of speculation, would Cam Sutton move inside when they needed a nickel, from outside?”, but from what he’s seen, it’s the 2020 sixth-round pick who is first on deck.
“The names are changing but not the way the Steelers intend to play defense”, he wrote for an article on the team’s website. “Slot blitzes became a signature of Hilton’s but the next man up will also have to have that club in his bag”.
Coming from a safety background at Maryland, Brooks may more organically profile well for what the Steelers want out of the slot than does Sutton, whose clear strength is far and away his coverage ability.
Pittsburgh very heavily values strong run defense out of its slot defender, something that Hilton did well, and effectiveness as a blitzer is a very strong plus, as well.
One can imagine that that might be more in Brooks’ wheelhouse than it is Sutton’s, who is more of a pure cornerback in terms of physique and skillset, even though he prides himself on his versatility to play anywhere in the secondary.
But as Prisuta reminded, senior defensive assistant Teryl Austin pretty strongly implied that “they prefer to keep Cam outside if they have the adequate people inside”. For one thing, it’s fewer moving pieces if you don’t have to move Sutton around throughout the game.
Prisuta also describes the view on James Pierre and Justin Layne as ‘capable’ contributors on the outside, with obviously at least one of them being required to play in any dime defensive personnel barring somebody else like Arthur Maulet also earning the right to play in the slot.
To the best of my knowledge, the Steelers have never employed a safety by trade as their primary fifth defensive back, though positions can be fluid. They have preferred at third safety as their dime defender, though.