The Pittsburgh Steelers parted ways, in one form or another, with half a dozen starters or so. As they head into the break before training camp, however, there might not be a position more in flux than the slot role occupied for the last four years by Mike Hilton.
Listening to senior defensive assistant Teryl Austin today, it certainly sounds as though they would like to explore all options first before resorting to Cameron Sutton being forced to play inside in their nickel defense. Sutton is replacing Steven Nelson in the starting lineup, but if they can’t find another adequate slot defender, he will have to kick inside during the year.
“The way I’m looking at it is, I know Cam can play inside, so right now, he’s working outside, and we’re letting these other guys kind of work inside to see what we have. I think that’s the proper way tot do it to make sure that we evaluate them and give them many opportunities to learn, see where they can go inside”, he told reporters.
Sutton has always prided himself on his football intelligence, which extends to having an understanding of knowing what everybody is supposed to be doing on the field. He is capable of playing any position in the secondary, and has already ‘started’ in the outside, slot, and dime roles, while logging snaps at safety intermittently as well within disguises.
He actually saw more snaps in the slot last year—276—than anywhere else on the field, though he also played more than 200 outside, and more than 100 inside the box or along the line. His versatility and experience gives them, basically, a fallback option if they can’t find another slot defender.
“If we don’t feel real comfortable with what we have, then we would obviously address changes at that time”, Austin said. “But I know for a fact that Cam would not need a lot of reps if he had to move inside and help us. That’s where we are with that”.
Arguably the team’s top options for a fifth defender are James Pierre and Justin Layne, a pair of outside cornerbacks, though it’s unclear if they are actually giving either one of them any work inside this Spring. Veteran Arthur Maulet, and rookies Tre Norwood, Shakur Brown, and Lamont Wade would be some options to line up in the slot position.
If they can’t work one of them into a starter-caliber option, or if Pierre or Layne simply shows himself to be the fifth-best defensive back that they have, then Sutton may well have to work back inside, where he has seen over 500 snaps during his four-year career.
That is, at least, one advantage the Steelers have this year. They know that they have a good slot option, one who doesn’t need a lot of reps if they can’t find another. It’s not ideal, but you must work with the hand you’re dealt.