The Pittsburgh Steelers took a decidedly significant step forward today in gaining clarity on their defensive sub-package alignment earlier today when they waived second-year defensive back Antoine Brooks Jr. with an injury, effectively eliminating him from contention for the nickel role for some time, if not entirely.
The most obvious alignment moving forward as their primary nickel look figures to be James Pierre as the fifth defensive back, playing outside cornerback, which would thrust Cameron Sutton into the slot, where he recorded four starts a year ago.
While he did not address specificities today, head coach Mike Tomlin was asked about the philosophy of putting together defensive sub-packages and whether or not it squarely aligns with the philosophy of getting ‘the five best guys’ on the field.
“So much of the game is situational, particularly as it pertains to the ‘net’, or the back end, so the best five or six for the circumstance or situation”, he said, is what we’re looking for, “and notice that I said five or six, because in today’s game in situational ball, sometimes it’s five, sometimes it’s six. We’ve got to be versatile, and I think we’ve got enough versatility in our collective skill set that allow us to meet the twists and turns that those situations bring”.
Since losing Mike Hilton in free agency and letting Steven Nelson got, Sutton had been plugged into one starting outside role opposite Joe Haden, while Brooks ran with the first-team defense in the slot throughout the Spring, and up until his injury in the first preseason game.
Pierre has logged a lot of first-team snaps as well, however, since Haden doesn’t always practice, as a 12th-year veteran, and the former college free agent has been frequently praised by his coaches and teammates, Haden among them.
Tomlin and the Steelers have left open the possibility that they will use multiple different alignments in nickel, and potentially dime, as well, however. While he is currently injured, Arthur Maulet would figure to be the most obvious candidate. He was also in contention for the slot job, and is listed as the second-team slot behind Brooks on the depth chart—at least before Brooks was waived.
With Justin Layne being an outside-only cornerback, he wouldn’t make sense for a dime role this year, as Pierre and Haden are clearly ahead of him and also out-side only players, so if it’s not Sutton and/or Maulet playing inside, perhaps the next-most likely possibility is rookie college free agent Shakur Brown, or seventh-round safety Tre Norwood.