For the rest of the preseason, we’ll give a recap, position-by-position, player-by-player of what I saw during the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers training camp and preseason games.
Getting near the end with an evaluation of the Steelers’ cornerbacks.
James Pierre: A very good camp from Pierre, who has one of the most highly touted cornerbacks throughout camp, start to finish. He flashed serious playmaking and ball skills. In team drills, he finished with two interceptions and had at least two more in 7v7. He also knocked the ball out of Najee Harris’ hands in a 7v7 session for the forced fumble.
In four preseason games, Pierre was targeted ten times according to our charting. He allowed five completions for just 36 yards and no touchdowns, a QB rating against of just 58.8. I was also impressed and encouraged by the job Pierre did against the run. It was an unknown part of his game – for me, anyway – coming into this year after barely getting to see him as a rookie. But he’s aggressive with his fills and fits and will come downhill.
Overall, Pierre has a blend of size, athleticism, and ball skills that’s highly attractive for today’s NFL. My only real concern with him are his aggressive eyes and desire to try to jump every route and always look for the big play. He trusts himself to a fault and he could get burned downfield for it.
Camp Grade: A-
Cam Sutton: Sutton had great back-and-forth battles with Chase Claypool early in camp. Jump balls in seven shots. Sutton won the first ones, Claypool the latter ones. Sutton didn’t look great in the preseason but he’s one of those guys who thrives on film study, gameplan, and knowing your opponent, things the preseason don’t tend to offer. So I’m not freaking over some lackluster play, though I still don’t believe Sutton will be as good as Steven Nelson’s been the last two years.
Sutton will be the team’s RCB in base defense. I think he should slide inside to the slot in nickel but the team prefers a more physical player and better blitzer. At this point, they don’t have many alternatives.
Camp Grade: B
Joe Haden: Funny enough, Haden’s camps generally haven’t been spectacular. And this one wasn’t. Chase Claypool gave him fits and Haden didn’t make a ton of plays, failing to intercept a pass and was attacked quite a bit in seven shots. Though it’s hard to articulate, it’s not anything that has me worried about into the season. He’s the vet who has proven it enough out on the field and there wasn’t anything physically that had him worried, though he like everyone else will lose to Father Time. He says otherwise but he certainly isn’t as fast as five years ago.
Haden perked up a bit in-game, including a great zone read and diving breakup against the Lions. 2021 could be his final season although he’s publicly lobbied for a contract extension. I don’t think it happens this year.
Camp Grade: B-
Mark Gilbert: A long, lean corner, Gilbert flashed the ball skills that made him a strong cover corner before hip injuries derailed his Duke career. He uses his length well and is able to close on the ball, playing the pocket or getting out in front of the ball. He tied for second on the team with a pair of interceptions during practice.
Gilbert is a willing hitter but has to work on his technique and fit – he gave up the edge on a 40 yard Anthony McFarland run – but there’s enough tools here to make him worth keeping around. He got through it healthy, luck he didn’t have his final three years of college.
Camp Grade: C+
Justin Layne: Layne got better than how he started and oh boy, did he need to. Had he played the remainder of the summer the way he did the first week of camp, he wouldn’t be on the roster bubble. He’d be way on the outside. But things improved and though there were some opportunistic plays made his way, tipped passes and pressured throws that fell into his arms, he still made the play.
Layne’s game is still maddingly inconsistent, both in coverage and as a tackler. It’s hard to trust him every down but there has been enough improvement to keep him on the roster. It’s not like any of the UDFAs did enough to bump him off and Layne’s shown to be a decent gunner on special teams.
Across the preseason, Layne was targeted 12 times, allowing seven catches for 64 yards, no touchdowns, and one interception.
Camp Grade: C+
Lafayette Pitts: Signed mid-way through camp, Pitts quickly passed up Stephen Denmark on the depth chart. His big moment came with a second-half interception against the Eagles. From there, things have been quiet but he’s a veteran player giving him a leg up against a lot of green, new faces. Pitts allowed just two catches on five targets with that interception though the two passes he gave up went for 22 and 18 yards. Possible practice squad add.
Camp Grade: C+
Arthur Maulet: Maulet is fine. Not bad, not great, he’s just there. The football equivalent of background noise, the stuff you put on TV to help you fall asleep. He’s versatile and can come downhill, two nice traits to have, but he’s an average to below average cover corner who can tackle the catch and not much else. Aside from one or two good practice performances (including an INT of Ben Roethlisberger to end a two-minute drill), there wasn’t much to note.
Arguably a worse version than Brice McCain, Maulet is a competent backup but if he’s pressed into serious action, Pittsburgh is trouble. He’s the definition of average. No more, no less.
Camp Grade: C
Stephen Denmark: Denmark flashed at the start of camp, his wide receiver background coming into play in tracking and making plays with the ball in the air. But as is the case every summer, someone who starts well doesn’t end that well. Denmark faded by the second preseason game and was released in the first wave of cuts from 90 to 85. I’m not sure what got him in the team’s doghouse, nothing I saw on the practice field, but something happened.
Camp Grade: C
Shakur Brown: The UDFA with the most amount of buzz, he was mostly bark and not bite. That isn’t to say it was all bad. Brown flashed his Hilton-like physicality, a force downhill who in one moment, knocked Mathew Sexton off his feet on a WR in a non-tackling drill. Brown just likes to hit people. He showed special teams value in the Hall of Fame Game but fell off from there, struggling in coverage against Detroit with a pair of penalties. He also had problems staying in-phase in man coverage. All told, he was targeted just four times this preseason but the three catches he allowed went for gains of 14, 25, and 21 yards.
Brown was released as the first wave of cuts yesterday as the team got its roster down from 80 t0 71. Could circle back to the practice squad and probably should, especially given the team’s lack of depth and question marks inside.
Camp Grade: C-
Antoine Brooks Jr.: Entering camp as the starting slot corner, his preseason and ultimately, his 2021 season, went sideways after suffering a left leg/thigh injury in early August. He missed ten days, came back for at least one practice, but didn’t play versus the Lions and was waived/injured shortly thereafter as the second wave of cuts. There’s a chance he circles back to the team after an injury settlement and some time but his chances of impacting this team in a meaningful way are remote.
His actual play when healthy was fine but there wasn’t enough time to make an accurate evaluation.
Camp Grade: Incomplete
DeMarkus Acy: Acy suffered a torn ACL in practice days before the Hall of Fame Game. He recently tweeted about his surgery. Not much to note from his evaluation. Wishing a speedy recovery.
Camp Grade: Incomplete