The Pittsburgh Steelers’ starting secondary on Thursday night consisted of Cameron Sutton, Antoine Brooks Jr., and…James Pierre, at the cornerback position. Before we read too much into that, though, it would be a helpful reminder to note that the starting safeties were Miles Killebrew and rookie seventh-round pick Tre Norwood. Veteran starters were rested.
Still, defensive coordinator Keith Butler allowed following Saturday’s practice that it’s still possible Pierre could open the season as a starter in the nickel. Of course, he would not be playing ahead of Joe Haden, but he was pretty clear in saying that the nickel role—and whether that nickel defender will play in the slot or outside—is still up for grabs.
Following the departure of Mike Hilton in free agency, the Steelers spent the spring and the early portions of training camp evaluating their slot options, headed by Brooks, a second-year safety who has reportedly slimmed down 15-20 pounds, and debuted well in the Hall of Fame game.
But Pierre also performed well, and when asked, Butler acknowledged that he could end up the nickel and force Sutton into the slot. “It could be depending on how he does”, he said of that possibility. “We like him though, for sure. I liked what I saw from him”.
Pierre is a second-year player out of Florida Atlantic who was originally signed as a college free agent last season. He made the initial 53-man roster and lasted there the entire season, immediately carving out a role on special teams to gain a weekly helmet.
As the season progressed, in the late stages, he also got some opportunities to play on defense when availability issues arose. When Haden missed the Steelers’ playoff game, and they needed a dime defender, Pierre was favored over Justin Layne, a more veteran former third-round cornerback.
It’s been made very clear at this point that Pierre is ahead of Layne on the depth chart, and would be the first man off the bench in the even that either Sutton or Haden were to get injured and miss time on the outside.
The question is whether or not he is not only their best fifth defensive back, but also one of the five defensive backs that gives them the best nickel defense, two questions that are related, but distinct. Sutton is more suited to play on the outside, and if they like what Brooks gives them in the slot, it would be hard to shift away from that.
But there’s also the possibility that they could mix and match where it suits them, sometimes deploying Brooks as the nickel and at others Pierre. There are still three more preseason games left to play before any decision has to be made.