2021 Offseason Questions: Are Coaches Open To Using Multiple Players As Nickel Defender?

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2020 season is now in the books. It ended in spectacular fashion — though the wrong kind of spectacular — in a dismal postseason defeat at the hands of the Cleveland Browns, sending them into an early offseason mode after going 12-4 in the regular season and winning the AFC North for the first time in three years.

Since then, they have lost several players in free agency who were key members of the offense and defense. Multiple starters retired, as well. They made few notable additions in free agency, and are banking on contributions on offense from their rookies, as well as perhaps a last ride for Ben Roethlisberger.

The only thing facing them now as they head into 2021 is more questions. Right now, they lack answers. They know that they have Roethlisberger for one more year, but was that even the right decision? How successful can Najee Harris be behind a questionable offensive line? What kind of changes can Matt Canada and Adrian Klemm bring to the offense? And how can the defense retain the status quo with the losses of Bud Dupree, Steven Nelson, and Mike Hilton?

These are the sorts of questions we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football is a year-round pastime and there are always questions to ask, though there is rarely a concrete answer. This is your venue for exploring the topics we present through all of their uncertainty.

Question: Are the Steelers open to using multiple nickel defenders depending on what the situation calls for?

Perhaps the biggest question the Steelers are trying to figure out on defense this summer is what to do when they play in their nickel defense, the formation that they use more than any other. They know that Joe Haden and Cameron Sutton are their starting cornerbacks, and they know who their safeties are, as well.

But what to do when they have to put a fifth defensive back on the field? And who says that they have to have only one player for that role? The Steelers have spent a lot of time this offseason breaking in slot options, with Antoine Brooks Jr. the chief candidate. He played well in the preseason opener.

But many seem to believe that their most talented defensive back in the secondary who is not in the starting lineup is second-year James Pierre, who would play outside in a nickel defense, which would force Sutton to be kicked inside, complicating the matter.

Given that they have no incumbent nickel defender following Mike Hilton’s departure in free agency, would the Steelers be open to doing some mixing and matching? Perhaps in obvious passing situations, they might be more inclined to go with Pierre and Sutton in the slot, but may prefer to have a more physical presence on the field with Brooks during more conventional situations.

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