Following the offseason departures of a pair of talented cornerbacks in Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton, many viewed the secondary as a position of uncertainty entering the 2021 season. Nonetheless, following early camp successes of Cameron Sutton and James Pierre, both being cast into larger roles ahead of the upcoming season, the Steelers secondary not only appears to be a potential position of strength, but one with some intriguing depth as well.
Thus, with the Hall of Fame game marking the official return of NFL football, I thought it would be interesting to evaluate the Steelers secondary youth who are likely to see snaps this thursday night. While I haven’t been at training camp, and am simply living vicariously through Alex’s daily reports like the rest of you, I have watched extensive college film and NFL on every name on this list, some even more than others, giving me what I believe to be a solid evaluation of their current skill sets, and where we can look for improvements starting this thursday night.
Prior to camp, I wrote an article regarding Pierre’s impact in 2020, both on special teams and in limited defensive snaps, predicting that he was in line for an increased role this upcoming season. Early camp reports indicate that Pierre is progressing mightily in year two, living around the football and creating turnovers at a healthy rate. In watching Pierre’s 2020 tape, it was easy to recognize his relentless effort in pursuit of the football and impressive physicality, both supporting the run and in coverage. Nonetheless, I found myself extremely impressed by Pierre’s patience, hip fluidity, and ball skills in a variety of coverage assignments including press man, off man, and various zone coverage schemes within the Steelers defense.
As he figures to start on the boundary Thursday night, it will be important to pay attention to Pierre’s coverage snaps, particularly gauging his ability to guard the short and intermediate portions of the field. While he has shown the ability to carry receivers vertically with ease, using his length and physicality to disrupt their releases and squeeze them toward the sideline, I’m intrigued to gauge Pierre’s ability to match smaller framed, shifty receivers on curls, comebacks, and stop routes attacking the sticks on possession downs.
While it’s all but a formality that Pierre will make the roster and have a role in the teams Dime package early in the season, producing a takeaway in a game setting, albeit preseason, could further elevate him into conversation for a role in the teams Nickel package. Regardless, it will be important for Pierre to maintain consistency this year in all facets of his game, including his work as a special teamer, where he stood out as one of the teams most impactful players as a gunner on the punt unit.
While it was clear entering camp that Pierre had overtaken Justin Layne as the teams boundary cornerback in Dime, it appears that many issues that have plagued him early on have continued to surface early in camp. Although possessing the coveted length and physicality at the position, Layne struggled mightily last year in his defensive snaps, often appearing passive and confused, particularly in zone coverage.
Moreover, while Layne has the length to disrupt receivers in press coverage, his lack of proper hip mobility makes it tough for him to transition efficiently. That being said, the coaching staff has worked with him extensively on refining his press technique, asking him to be more patient and work to stay square to disrupt receivers. Apparently the technical improvements have worked on some level, as our Alex Kozora has reported multiple pass breakups for Layne over the past couple of practices.
On defense, watch for Layne’s ability to effectively communicate switches, gain depth, and force checkdows, an area which he struggled mightily this past season. When in man coverage, whether Cover 2, Cover 1, or Cover 0, it will be important to analyze Layne’s ability to stay square at the line, leverage away from his help, stay in phase, and disrupt receivers at the catch point.
While he may not receive any special teams work Thursday night, as the team already has a solid understanding of his work in that facet of the game, it will be extremely important that Layne continues to show value on the punt and kickoff units, as his perceived value in the eyes of Danny Smith will go a long way to securing a roster spot on the team. While Layne has yet to create splash plays early in training camp, forcing a takeaway or two in the teams first in stadium action could go a long way in changing the entire trajectory of his 2021 camp.
In my initial study of Tre Norwood’s collegiate tape, two things stuck out immediately, his knack for creating turnovers in the pass game and his clear lack of physicality, both defending the run and tackling in open space. Gauging off Alex’s early camp reports, the first trait seems to have translated to practice, as he has been able to make plays on the football, even securing an interception through the early portion of camp.
Nonetheless, with his first NFL in stadium action, it will be important to gauge Norwood’s physicality, as he will almost certainly have to make a tackle, whether it be in the box or in the open field, at some point during the game. Given that he is currently one of the teams’ only options to backup Minkah Fitzpatrick at the free safety spot, his ability to tackle effectively and showcase the physicality that he sorely lacked at the collegiate level could go a long way in securing a roster spot.
Ultimately, don’t be surprised if Norwood forces a takeaway in the game, as he’s made a career off of his ability to do so. That being said, I strongly believe that the team would be more intrigued by a six tackle outing where he shows a physical presence, with a forced turnover serving as icing on the cake. While Tre Norwood is by no means a lock to make the 2021 roster, showing physicality, both on defense and in whatever special teams work he receivers, will go a long way in Coach Tomlin and Kevin Colbert’s evaluation of his game.
Similar to Norwood, Mark Gilbert exited college with nearly flawless coverage tape working in tandem with two glaring flaws, an inability to stay on the field to go along with a clear and apparent lack of physicality. Throw on Gilbert’s freshman year tape against Baylor and you will see him give current New York Jet Denzel Mims fits in press coverage. Nonetheless, his run defense resembled something similar to Artie Burns, with a clear lack of desire to get physical working in tandem with some god awful run fits, particularly in crack and replace situations.
Per Alex’s reporting, both seem to have continued throughout the early portion of camp, with some nice coverage at the catch point, even securing an interception, combined with some poor run fits, including a failed crack and replace fill that sprung Anthony McFarland for a double explosive run. Given that Gilbert is a long shot to make the roster, he’ll absolutely need to show some physicality, both in his defensive snaps, but more importantly, in whatever special teams work the team gives him.
While I absolutely would not be surprised to see Gilbert excel in certain press coverage assignments against the Cowboys backups in a preseason setting, he must work quickly to shed his reputation of lacking physicality and show Danny Smith some level of special teams capability in order to compete for a roster spot. If Gilbert can tackle the catch effectively and display some physicality filling off the edge, he could certainly insert his name into the hat for a practice squad spot at the very least.
After seeing the Steelers had signed a big name UDFA in Michigan State’s Shakur Brown, I immediately dove into a profile on his man coverage, as many draft pundits had profiled him as a “zone corner” who would work best in the slot due to his lack of measurables. Nonetheless, I found myself extremely impressed with Brown’s inside-outside versatility and his ability to function properly in a wide array of man coverage assignments.
In press coverage, Brown consistently made up for his lack of size and speed by being patient at the line and dictating receivers’ paths downfield with physicality. At the catch point, Brown was among the best in the nation, securing five interceptions in the Covid-shortened Big Ten season. Thus, I thought that it was fathomable that Brown could not only secure a roster spot, but also make a push for a role in the teams’ sub packages.
Per Alex’s reporting, Brown has begun to settle in after a quiet first few days of camp, securing an interception and showing his block shedding abilities in shutting down multiple screen attempts. Entering the Hall of Fame game, it’ll be interesting to see how Brown is used, be it solely on the boundary or if he’s given some late game slot work. Regardless, if Brown can display an ability to stay in phase with NFL receivers and make plays on the football like he did at the collegiate level, he will vault his name back toward into the conversation for a practice squad spot, and perhaps, a back of the end roster spot if he’s able to produce some solid work on special teams.
Any time a player gains an opportunity at the NFL level coming out of Division II Valdosta State, they have already completed a minor miracle. Enter Stephen Denmark, a 6’3” 210 pound athletic freak, who’s made some noise early in camp with his disruptive length and ball skills. As a senior, Denmark put together an impressive season, compiling 55 tackles, 8 tackles for losses, a sack, a forced fumble, and three picks, one of which he returned for a touchdown, all coming in his first season after switching to defense.
In his collegiate tape, Denmark’s physicality jumped off the screen, consistently overpowering receivers with his jump jams and showing both the desire and ability to lay the wood, both in run support and as a shallow zone defender. While a roster spot in 2021 certainly seems like a long shot, Denmark has the size and ability to stick out in special teams work across various units, potentially earning the support of Danny Smith for a practice squad berth. Moreover, Denmark has already secured an interception thus far in training camp, and any turnovers that he can force in a game setting will only increase his value.
Pay close attention to Denmark’s work in press coverage, as I have my concerns as to whether his ultra aggressive jump jams will be met with the same success against NFL caliber receivers. Regardless, Denmark is a 6’3” cornerback who hits like a linebacker, an extremely coveted skillset in the modern NFL, making him potentially the most intriguing of all the UDFA corners this preseason. While Thursday night’s performance will go a long way in determining his future with the team, as a Division III college football player, Denmark has earned my respect, and I will be quietly rooting for this kid to fulfill his NFL dreams, whether in Pittsburgh or wherever he may end up after camp.
Antoine Brooks Jr.
To say that Antoine Brooks Jr. has undergone a transformation since entering the league last season would be an understatement. After playing his entire collegiate career as a 220 pound box safety, Brooks Jr. was featured heavily as a slot cornerback against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 10, acquitted himself well enough that the team transitioned him into a full time role at the position for the 2021 camp. The former Maryland product has shed 15 pounds from the time the team drafted him, and is currently in a heated competition with Arthur Maulet for the starting role in Week 1 at the position.
While the weight loss should help, I’m extremely interested to see Brooks Jr.’s work in man coverage, as his lack of desired hip mobility was a knock coming out of college, and was put to the test repeatedly in Week 10. As his physicality and willingness to defend the run are unquestioned, his ability to effectively match receivers in man coverage on, both on intermediate routes and downfield, will help cement his full transition to the position, regardless of any perceived lack of NFL caliber competition.
Given that Maulet has served as a slot cornerback at the NFL level, among various other roles, it is imperative that Brooks Jr. shows that he can at the very least provide serviceable coverage and disrupt receivers at the catch point. Ultimately, while the Steelers are looking for a physical player to replicate Mike Hilton’s production on some level, Brooks Jr. will need to hold up in coverage to push the veteran for a Week 1 starting job.
At the end of the day, this is an extremely intriguing group of young talent in the secondary. Whether Pierre or Brooks Jr. furthering their resume in competition for a significant defense role, or Justin Layne, Mark Gilbert, Stephen Denmark, Tre Norwood, and Shakur Brown getting their first shot to stake their claim at a back end roster spot, Thursday Night’s Hall of Fame Game is a momentous opportunity.
While all defensive backs, particularly those playing under Teryl Austin, place high emphasis on producing takeaways, consistent play on defense and more importantly, on special teams, might be enough to shift a players camp trajectory entirely. Whether Norwood and Gilbert showing physicality, Brown and Brooks Jr. overcoming their measurements, Layne showcasing some veteran maturity, or Stephen Denmark taking a big jump in competition to the NFL level, everyone has something to prove.
Let me know in the comments below who you’re excited to watch in Thursday night’s hall of fame game! I’ll have a new weekly series going up once the season kicks off, so stay tuned for that as well!