2021 Offseason Questions: Will Steelers Mix And Match To Fill Nickel Role?

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2020 season is now in the books. It ended in spectacular fashion — though the wrong kind of spectacular — in a dismal postseason defeat at the hands of the Cleveland Browns, sending them into an early offseason mode after going 12-4 in the regular season and winning the AFC North for the first time in three years.

Since then, they have lost several players in free agency who were key members of the offense and defense. Multiple starters retired, as well. They made few notable additions in free agency, and are banking on contributions on offense from their rookies, as well as perhaps a last ride for Ben Roethlisberger.

The only thing facing them now as they head into 2021 is more questions. Right now, they lack answers. They know that they have Roethlisberger for one more year, but was that even the right decision? How successful can Najee Harris be behind a questionable offensive line? What kind of changes can Matt Canada and Adrian Klemm bring to the offense? And how can the defense retain the status quo with the losses of Bud Dupree, Steven Nelson, and Mike Hilton?

These are the sorts of questions we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football is a year-round pastime and there are always questions to ask, though there is rarely a concrete answer. This is your venue for exploring the topics we present through all of their uncertainty.

Question: Will the Steelers mix and match to figure out the nickel role?

While there is still plenty of time to sort itself out, it is clear that there isn’t yet one obvious candidate who is best suited to serve as the Steelers’ nickel defender this year, a job that is open following the losses of Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton from the secondary this offseason.

James Pierre has been the center of attention a time or two over the course of OTAs and minicamp. There was one day when he recorded two interceptions off of Ben Roethlisberger. Yet after camp broke, we heard that Antoine Brooks Jr. spent a lot of time lining up in the slot.

Combine that with the fact that there are still plenty of opportunities for others like Arthur Maulet and Justin Layne to throw their hats into the ring, and I don’t think that we can be certain that there is going to be just one player who serves as the fifth defensive back the way Hilton has been for years.

It’s not completely abnormal for teams to mix and match, though it’s more common for the dime role. Way back in 2011, for example, both Cortez Allen and Ryan Mundy played the dime defender role. A few years ago, Justin Gilbert was a sub-package dime defender against tight ends.

So could it be that we see multiple defensive backs, depending upon the opponent or situation, serving as the nickel (though not necessarily slot) defender? It’s an option I’m sure the team is exploring as they figure out how to piece this secondary back together following a pair of key losses.

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