Arguably the most open battle in training camp for the Pittsburgh Steelers this year is the slot defender role, and whether or not it will be occupied by starting right outside cornerback Cameron Sutton when they roll into their nickel and dime defenses.
The team’s priority right now is exploring their alternative options for the slot position lain vacant with the free agency departure of Mike Hilton, with second-year Antoine Brooks Jr. and veteran Arthur Maulet being the primary contenders.
Brooks opened camp working with the starters. He suffered a minor injury and left practice on Sunday, but we do not know whether or not he returned to the field today. After practice, though, head coach Mike Tomlin was asked about what he is seeing from Maulet.
“He’s got a reputation of being a rough-and-tumble teamer, and a versatile defender”, he told reporters. “I just think guys that show that level of versatility in two phases, you better have an interest in, and he’s displaying that out here. Obviously tomorrow will be a big day, and the subsequent days after we step in the stadiums and stuff like that, but that’s what his resume tells us, and he’s exemplifying that”.
Again, we don’t know whether or not Brooks was available to practice today—Tomlin has previously said that the Maryland product will start in the slot for the Hall of Fame game—but it has been made clear that both players will get their opportunity to compete for the role over the course of camp.
Brooks has minimal playing experience, seeing a couple dozen snaps last year, but Maulet is the most veteran member of the secondary who is not slated to be in the starting lineup. He played roughly 800 snaps over the course of the past two seasons.
The Steelers are looking for a specific set of skills from their slot defender, which places roughly equal emphasis on the ability to cover as well as to play the run, and they must also be an on-the-details blitzer who possesses the physicality to hold up in the box.
That is not necessarily Sutton’s forte, even though he has several starts in the slot over the past few seasons, including four in 2020. Brooks is a more physical player as a safety whom the team described as half a linebacker when he was drafted.
He seems to be the Steelers’ favorite out of the gates, the player whom they hope ultimately wins the job, but Maulet’s veteran experience will keep him in the running, and at least so far, Tomlin seems to be pleased with what they’re getting from him.