The Pittsburgh Steelers lost a couple of starters out of their secondary from last season, including slot cornerback Mike Hilton, who signed with their division rivals, the Cincinnati Bengals, in free agency. They did not bring anybody in to replace him, directly, but they have some in-house candidates they are exploring.
The leading candidate since the start of the offseason program has been Antoine Brooks Jr., a 2020 sixth-round safety out of Maryland, who has said that he has dropped 15 to 20 pounds since coming out of school at about 220 last year, which had general manager Kevin Colbert describing him as “half a safety, half a linebacker”.
Now, he’s playing the slot corner position, and he’s going up against big-bodied, experienced, Pro Bowl types like JuJu Smith-Schuster every day in practice. The veteran wide receiver hopped on SiriusXM Radio yesterday to talk with hosts Pat Kirwan and Jim Miller, and he had to give some praise to the guy he’s been battling these past couple of weeks.
“He’s doing an amazing job. Him and Cam [Sutton], the two new guys on the defense who are actually stepping up”, he said. “I go against Antoine every day, and he’s putting good stuff on film. He’s giving me competition and we’re putting in the work and we’re just making each other better”.
The Steelers have a few options that they may explore by the time the regular season is here. Arthur Maulet, a veteran who has experience in the slot, was signed soon after the 2021 NFL Draft. They could also move Cameron Sutton inside and play James Pierre outside in the nickel.
But Brooks best fits what they’re looking for, somebody who offers more of a size presence and a physical approach to run support and blitzing. Sutton’s primary strength is strictly as a coverage player, so you don’t want him spending 60-70 percent of his time in the box, if you can avoid it.
There is still a lot of this process left, but Brooks has drawn positive early reviews. He is slated to start the Hall of Fame game against the Dallas Cowboys tomorrow as the defense’s slot defender, but other options may get their opportunities later on.
Aside from Maulet, another possible candidate is Tre Norwood, who has been making plays as a safety. Head coach Mike Tomlin has said that they wanted to get him established at the back end first, but that they were open to giving him the opportunity to move around when he has more of a foothold on what he’s doing.
But Brooks is the leader in the clubhouse, and at this point, you have to imagine that as long as he plays above the line throughout this process, it’s going to be his job when the season opens. They will have to be flexible and open to change if he struggles, but he is the starting point as they look for their best combination in the secondary.