For a team that is as perennially stable as the Pittsburgh Steelers, there are rarely many questions in terms of the starting lineup. There might be a few positions up for grabs this year, but typically, there is a clear favorite. Rookie Kendrick Green, for example, is widely anticipated to be their center.
If there is one truly open starting position, though, it would be the nickel defender, and it is yet to be determined whether the nickel will play inside or outside. Following the departures of Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton, the Steelers have had to do some reshuffling in the secondary. Cameron Sutton takes over a starting role, but where he plays most of his snaps will be determined by who else is on the field.
Early on, many thought that it might be Justin Layne, who did play the third-most snaps on defense last season among those still on the roster. Reports from the spring, however, indicated otherwise, as Pro Football Focus now reflects.
Taking at stab at predicting each team’s starting lineup (12 starters in total on either side of the ball), there are no surprises as to their predictions, barring the nickel. They have Antoine Brooks Jr., the 2020 sixth-round safety, penciled in as the third cornerback, but list James Pierre—another second-year guy who went undrafted—as the player to watch. Ben Linsey writes:
The Steelers re-signed Sutton this offseason over Mike Hilton because Sutton has the versatility to potentially move outside, where he has started several games over the course of his NFL career. Ideally, that’s where he will start in 2021, with Brooks reportedly standing out as the current favorite to be the starting nickel, per The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly.
However, Pittsburgh could always move Sutton back inside, where he ranks in the 97th percentile of qualifying cornerbacks in slot coverage grade since 2019, if the team isn’t happy with the other slot options. That would open the door for Pierre (38 defensive snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2020) to start opposite Haden.
Brooks reportedly spent most of OTAs and minicamp in the slot, and at least both he and Mike Prisuta, perhaps among others, strongly indicated that it was his job to lose. But that’s what training camp and the preseason is for: The winning and losing of jobs.
It does seem as though the Steelers, if given the option, would prefer to leave Sutton on the outside, and find a slot option with the versatile skill set that Hilton had. But at the end of the day, it comes down to the simple question: Who are your best 11 players? And then you figure out how to get them on the field.