What will the Pittsburgh Steelers’ nickel defense look like this season? Some of the names are obvious. Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds at safety. Joe Haden at left corner. And Cam Sutton will be on the field. But where he’ll play and who the fifth defensive back will be remains a mystery.
Keith Butler, however, may have dropped a hint as to what the team is thinking. Speaking with reporters following Tuesday’s practice, he noted the idea of moving Sutton to the slot with James Pierre at RCB “might be the deal with us.”
“Another possibility. That’s a good question,” Butler told reporters via the team website when asked of such a configuration. “And that might be the deal with us. We like [Antoine Brooks Jr.] and [Arthur Maulet] in terms of their physicality and stuff like that. We like the covering ability of [Cam Sutton]. [James Pierre] is playing well for us in this part of our season. So could he be part of the starting deal? We’ll see. We’ll see as we go. But that certainly is a possibility.”
To be fair and clear, Butler didn’t explicitly commit to anything. It’s a battle that has yet to be decided. But having Pierre on the outside and Sutton in the slot feels like the Steelers’ strongest course of action. It puts the best five on the field. Pierre has shown more this camp than Brooks, Maulet, or any of the other backup/sub-package cornerbacks. Butler’s “that might be the deal with us” comment only reinforces the idea.
It is by no means a perfect world. The Steelers valued Mike Hilton’s linebacker-like physicality, run defense, and blitzing ability. Sutton isn’t at that level; Brooks and Maulet are better in that regard. But Sutton has improved his tackling, he forced three fumbles last season, remember, and the NFL is a pass-first world.
Brooks Jr. has missed the last ten days due to a leg/thigh injury and sat out the team’s second preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles. He was slightly more active during today’s practice but may miss the Detroit Lions’ game too. He’s now trying to catch a moving train after entering camp as the starting slot corner. Maulet has been available but his play has been, at best, average, and nothing inspiring to make him the team’s new slot corner. Ideally, he’s a versatile backup when injuries occur, not someone who should be starting out of the gate.
That leaves the team with one option. Move Sutton to the slot, a position he’s comfortable with, and put Pierre on the outside. Pierre’s camp hasn’t been without issue, he can be too aggressive, but he’s been a playmaker with the best physical traits of maybe any cornerback on this team, starter or backup. Starting out as a UDFA last season, he’s moved up the ladder, blown past Justin Layne, and deserves to see snaps this season.
Though Butler left all options on the table, odds are good when the Steelers’ trot out their nickel defense for the first time against the Bills, it’ll be with Pierre as the fifth DB. And we can look back on Butler’s comments that hinted at it.