Following the unsurprising offseason departure of stalwart Nickel cornerback Mike Hilton, and the far more unpredictable release of Joe Haden’s running mate on the boundary, Steven Nelson, the Steelers enter their 2021 campaign with uncertainty at the cornerback position. While the defense has two solid options along the boundary in the savvy veteran Joe Haden and versatile sub package defender Cameron Sutton making his transition toward a starting role, the options to replace Sutton’s sub package snaps remains an open competition, and perhaps the most important of this year’s upcoming training camp.
While the team has signed a plethora of slot capable options to assume Sutton’s role and allow the young cornerback to focus on his transition to the boundary, including Arthur Maulet, Tre Norwood, and my favorite, Shakur Brown, I’d argue that the team’s best sub package option is a player who cut his teeth on special teams as a UDFA rookie this past season, James Pierre.
After improbably surviving training camp cuts this past fall, Pierre carved out a role for himself across various special teams units, ultimately recording 227 special teams snaps on the punt, kickoff, and punt return units, finishing his rookie campaign with 10 tackles. In fact, in my weekly defensive back report card column from this past season, I found myself consistently impressed with Pierre’s work as a gunner on the team’s punt unit and safety on the team’s kickoff unit, two roles where he displayed maniacal effort in pursuit of the football and physically at the point of contact. Moreover, following injuries at the position and the noticeably sub-par performance by Justin Layne, Pierre was eventually able to secure a late season Dime package role as a boundary cornerback, recording 27 regular season defensive snaps and eight more in the playoffs, showcasing his physicality, fluidity, and coverage ability in the process.
Following a minicamp performance which produced even more buzz for the young cornerback, James Pierre appears to have become the favorite to serve as a boundary cornerback in the teams Nickel and Dime sets, allowing Cameron Sutton to continue serving as a versatile Swiss army knife in sub package units. That being said, today we will be profiling why Pierre is poised for a breakout season, and why Tomlin and others within the organization are so high on his potential.
James Pierre’s Infectious Effort and Physicality
From the days of Ike Taylor, Bryant McFadden, and William Gay to the more recent unit comprised of Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, Mike Hilton, and Cameron Sutton, Pittsburgh has always valued one trait above all else at the cornerback position, physicality, and willingness to get involved in defending the run. From that standpoint, it’s easy to see why Colbert and company fell in love with the 6’2”, 190-pound James Pierre coming out of Florida Atlantic as a UDFA, as he stood out as one of the most physical prospects in his class.
On the rep below from his Florida Atlantic tape, Pierre aligns as overhang defender to the boundary, holding his outside leverage against the H-back before shedding the blocker and violently driving the quarterback to the turf to secure the tackle for a loss. Note that against the stronger but smaller framed H-back, Pierre uses his length to his advantage, locking out his arms and extending the blocker away his body before shedding the block to his inside with a violent snatch, maintaining proper outside leverage throughout the entire rep. While many could cite Pierre’s lack of top tier competition at the collegiate level, he continued to display his maniacal effort, top end athleticism, and physical demeanor in his extensive special teams work this past season, most notably in his work as a gunner.
Sticking on the Pittsburgh roster as a UDFA defensive back simply doesn’t happen without the blessing of Danny Smith, and needless to say, it’s easy to see why he identified Pierre’s potential to be a contributing special teamer. After taking a few weeks to settle into his role serving primarily as a gunner on the punt unit, safety on the kickoff unit, and jammer on the punt return unit, Pierre announced his presence emphatically with a standout performance out of the gunner role in a Week 4 matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles. Facing a double team at the top of the screen, Pierre attacks the outside jammer, fighting to shed and stack him along the sideline before beating the second jammer with speed, closing rapidly to the returner, and shooting low for a violent takedown of Greg Ward as he fielded the punt. While the play displays Pierre’s raw athleticism, violent demeanor, and relentless effort, it also secures a crucial victory in the ever-important hidden yardage battle, forcing Carson Wentz and company to start a drive backed up inside their own 20-yard line.
While Tomlin made certain to note Pierre’s “varsity work” out of the gunner spot in 2020, Pierre’s work as the safety on the kickoff unit, a vastly different role which requires far more patience and football IQ, was equally impressive. Below, from a Week 5 matchup against the Cleveland Browns, Pierre, serving as the safety to the top of the screen, hangs back before diagnosing the “bounce” return, closing to the near hip with proper leverage, forcing the Donovan Peoples-Jones toward the sideline, and wrapping up the returners legs to secure the stop and prevent what could have been an explosive return opportunity.
When Pierre was finally rewarded for his impressive special teams work with four snaps on the final drive of a Week 11 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, he attacked the opportunity, making his presence felt on the drive’s first snap. Aligned as the boundary cornerback at the top of the screen, Pierre, aligned at five-yard depth in a Cover 2 Man Under scheme, Pierre faces inward, keeping vision on the quarterback pre snap. At the snap, Pierre diagnoses screen immediately, flying upfield with a smooth break, beating the kick out block and shooting low to secure a tackle for a loss. While special teams work is vastly different from manning a boundary cornerback spot in the modern NFL, Pierre has certainly shown that his physicality is a trait that he brings to all facets of the game and will most certainly help him acquit himself nicely as he transitions into a larger role in Pittsburgh.
James Pierre’s Advanced Coverage Ability and Fluid Movement Skills
While his 6’2” 190-pound frame was certainly at the forefront of Kevin Colbert’s decision to sign the UDFA, Pierre’s collegiate tape showed a player with elite hip mobility and movement skills for his size. In 2019, his first year as a cornerback after transitioning from safety, Pierre recorded 43 tackles, 4.5 tackles for losses, four passes defended, and three interceptions, showcasing his ability to suffocate receivers with a unique combination of length, physicality, and raw movement skills. Below, in a matchup against Western Kentucky, Pierre operates out of a press bail technique, shuffling patiently with vision on the receiver before sinking and flipping his hips effortlessly to stay in phase with the receiver toward the sideline and climb the ladder to secure an interception on the overthrown pass. As he eventually carved out a role as a sub package defender toward the latter half of the 2020 season, his movement skills, coverage ability, and pure confidence began to reveal themselves at the NFL level, providing the coaching staff and fans with plenty of optimism.
In his first game as the full time Dime defender, filling in on the boundary after an injury to Joe Haden and a demotion to the struggling Justin Layne, Pierre acquitted himself nicely in his eight defensive snaps, rising to the occasion to provide tight man coverage on third downs. Below, aligned in off man coverage to the field side stack to the field side, Pierre shows great patience and situational understanding in the third and long situation. At the snap, Pierre pedals patiently, weaving laterally to protect his outside leverage, before coming to balance, contacting Rashard Higgins at the top of his route, and putting himself in position to play the ball. As so many young defensive backs struggle to play with patience against NFL receivers, some of the best athletes in the world, it is extremely refreshing to see Pierre, an inexperienced cornerback with only one year of prior starting experience, able to stay patient, protect the sticks, and challenge receivers in an important playoff game.
Earlier in the same game, with the Browns once again facing a third and long situation, Pierre recorded the first pass breakup of his NFL career in what has undoubtedly become the defining play of his young career. With the Browns targeting Rashard Higgins on an out and up double move, Pierre initially bites on the double move before effortlessly flipping his hips to carry the receiver vertically, force him to the sideline with physicality, and turning to locate the football and force the incompletion with a violent left-hand punch at the catch point.
As I previously mentioned, Pierre’s ability to flip his hips so effortlessly is extremely encouraging, as I believe that hip mobility and the ability to play with patience are the two most important determining factors of a young cornerback’s transition to the NFL level. Moreover, Pierre’s ability to remain calm with the ball in the air and finish at the catch point with violence to ensure the incompletion shows his ball skills are already at an advanced level for a rookie with plenty of room to improve.
While not nearly as flashy as the prior examples, perhaps my favorite rep from Pierre last season came in his third snap of the final drive in the Jacksonville game, aligned at the top of the screen to the field side in the Steelers Cover 2 Zone scheme. A skill that Justin Layne struggled with all season, and was eventually benched for was his inability to effectively communicate and operate within zone coverage schemes. On the rep, Pierre gains depth in his shuffle technique, mid pointing the level scheme before giving an “under” call to his linebackers, sinking to close off a throwing window on the corner route, and ultimately forcing Jake Luton to check the ball down as the rush arrived. While the communication is seemingly simple, it is ultimately the main reason why so many young defensive backs are kept off the field, and thus it is extremely refreshing to see Pierre’s IQ is already at an NFL level ahead of his potential ascension into a larger role.
At the end of the day, Kevin Colbert is one of the very best front office executives in football, and there always seems to be a master plan behind his seemingly head scratching moves. While I was certainly baffled when I first heard the news of Steven Nelson’s release, I strongly believe that Colbert and company believe that what they have in house in Cam Sutton and James Pierre was capable of not only replacing, but perhaps building upon Nelson’s work in Pittsburgh. At the end of the day, for all of Nelson’s ability to serve as the team’s best press man coverage defender, and make no mistake, he recorded just three interceptions across his two full seasons in Pittsburgh. Ultimately, in a Pittsburgh defense that has rebranded itself around the concept of producing takeaways at league high rates, if Pierre and Sutton are able to build upon Nelson’s pedestrian takeaway numbers, Colbert may just be proven correct yet again.