The Pittsburgh Steelers know that they face a lot of questions entering training camp, even just concerning who is going to line up where. Perhaps the biggest personnel mystery is who is going to line up as the nickel defender, a role occupied by Mike Hilton for the previous four seasons.
The first player on deck, lining up in the slot, is second-year safety Antoine Brooks Jr., a sixth-round pick out of Maryland last year. He was noted as lining up there during OTAs, and head coach Mike Tomlin already announced that he will start there in the Hall of Fame game against the Dallas Cowboys next month.
“He’s still got a lot to learn but we think he’s capable of doing it, capable of learning”, defensive coordinator Keith Butler said of Brooks adapting to a slot role. “We’re not gonna not be competitive with him. Meaning that we’re going to get somebody behind him that’s going to be competitive with him to push him a little bit. And we try to do that with everybody on our defense”.
Veteran Arthur Maulet would be the most likely number two slot defender at this point, assuming that Cameron Sutton, who has five career starts in the slot, remains outside. A trio of rookies—Tre Norwood, Shakur Brown, and Lamont Wade—are their other options.
As time goes on, it seems increasingly obvious that the Steelers’ Plan A is to find a new slot cornerback, somebody who could best replicate the complete skill set of Hilton, who was adept not just in coverage, but also against the run and blitzing. Brooks is first on deck, and he’s got a ways to go.
“Not yet”, Butler said when asked if Brooks is showing them ‘Mike Hilton things’. “But we hope he does. He’s gotten better. He’s practiced better these last two practices, but we’ve been in shorts. Everybody looks good in shorts. So, we’ll see. We’ll see when he gets the pads on and he starts coming from outside and putting a little fear into the quarterback a little bit. I think he’ll be good at that”.
If the Steelers don’t find somebody with whom they can be satisfied lining up for 700-plus snaps in the slot, the most likely alternative will be to kick Sutton inside when they play in the nickel, with James Pierre being the next man up on the outside.
The second-year former college free agent seemingly made steady progress behind the scenes in practice as a rookie, and was also said to have had a good slate of spring practices. But, again, getting him on the field outside seems to be Plan B, as they prioritize their options in the slot.