2021 Offseason Questions: What Will Steelers’ Nickel D Look Like Tonight?

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: What will the Steelers’ nickel defense look like during tonight’s game?

The Steelers’ biggest question on defense this year so far has been about how their nickel defense, which is their most common defensive package, is going to look. With Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton gone, they have had to explore other avenues, starting with Cameron Sutton on the outside.

But in recent days, the team has made it clear that Sutton playing in the slot, at least sometimes, may be necessary, which would mean James Pierre is playing on the outside. Mike Tomlin was open to using multiple different combinations of players to get the job done.

Second-year safety Antoine Brooks Jr. has spent most of the offseason running with the first-team defense in the slot, and he played well there in the preseason opener, but he had been injured for most of the time since then.

He’s recently gotten back on the field, but has he lost too much ground already for such an inexperienced player? Arthur Maulet is another candidate who is lining up in the slot, and who has been playing there since Brooks went down, so we could see three or more different defensive backs serving as the nickel defender in tonight’s game—and possibly in the regular season as well.

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