The Pittsburgh Steelers are looking for a new slot defender following the free agency departure of Mike Hilton. This is what we’ve known since the middle of March. We’ve also had a good idea of who the potential candidates might be for some time, but we’re only just now getting our first serious look at them.
While second-year safety Antoine Brooks Jr. appears to be the first on deck, another strong contender, about whom we didn’t hear much of anything in the spring, is veteran Arthur Maulet, who signed just after the draft following two seasons most recently with the New York Jets, playing mostly in the slot.
“He’s a proven NFL dude”, head coach Mike Tomlin said of Maulet after practice Friday. “He showed an aptitude in terms of playing in the slot, the blitzing, the physicality, even though we haven’t had an opportunity to do it in this setting. He’s not a rookie. He’s got a reputation, a resume, and so we’re utilizing that to make some early decisions in terms of getting exposure to him”.
In other words, it’s not just the Brooks show. As defensive coordinator Keith Butler also said of the second-year player following practice, “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”.
Brooks will start in the slot during the Hall of Fame game versus the Dallas Cowboys, and he’s running first-team there in practice leading up to that game. But that’s the only tentpole in the ground, so to speak. After that game, perhaps Maulet gets a week or two primarily running first-team slot and starts there in the preseason.
The Steelers’ priority is evaluating their alternative slot options, because they know what they have in Cameron Sutton, a guy who is capable of playing both outside and inside. But they want a slot player who is more of a presence against the run and in blitzing than Sutton is.
Maulet and Brooks are the two most likely candidates, but there are others, such as seventh-round rookie Tre Norwood. Though he may be best suited to playing the safety position, he prides himself in his ability to play anywhere in the secondary, and the team already had him working in different spots during OTAs.
The advantage that Maulet has, however, is his experience, as Tomlin said. He’s played more than 700 snaps on defense over just the past two seasons, and the bulk of that work came in the slot, so they’re not working from scratch.