Tuesday’s waiver of second-year defensive back Antoine Brooks Jr. came as a mild surprise when the Pittsburgh Steelers announced their mandatory five roster cuts, though it seemed to signify that he had a setback in his injury. It also helped to clarify what the nickel defense is going to look like, at least to start the season.
That would be calling in James Pierre to play on the outside when the Steelers go with five (or six) defensive backs, which would push Cameron Sutton into the slot. The fifth-year veteran has played in the slot quite a bit over the course of his career, but doesn’t have much experience bouncing in and out over the course of the game.
Nevertheless, his coaches and teammates do not appear to be particularly concerned about his ability to handle that. “It don’t matter to Cam”, Pierre told reporters on Tuesday on if Sutton were asked to move between the outside and the slot throughout the game. “Cam can do it all. He can do it all. He knows a lot. He helped our team out a lot. It don’t matter, he can handle it all”.
Since entering the league, Sutton has logged about 1,300 snaps on defense in the regular season and postseason. More than 500 of those snaps have come in the slot, including nearly 300 during the 2020 season, which saw him start four games in the slot while Mike Hilton was sidelined due to an injury.
Hilton spent the past four seasons as the Steelers’ nickel defender in the slot, but he signed a free agent contract with the Cincinnati Bengals in March. Pittsburgh has spent the offseason exploring alternatives, with Brooks being the primary candidate, and Arthur Maulet being another, but at this rate, it appears Sutton will be their primary slot defender.
It is not uncommon to have a starting outside cornerback move into the slot. Most recently, William Gay did this for the Steelers during the 2016 season, with a rookie Artie Burns playing on the outside in the nickel before taking over a full-time starting job.
It’s also common throughout the league, not just in Pittsburgh, though generally, I think that teams would prefer to have one player who is their slot defender and comes into the game when they employ their nickel defense.
If it is not a team’s best alignment, however, then you have to adapt, and right now, it appears that Pierre as the fifth defensive back, despite his being restricted to playing on the outside, is their best personnel alignment—provided that Sutton can handle the in-game movement.