The Pittsburgh Steelers are still figuring out what their nickel formation will look like in the defensive secondary when they open their regular-season schedule on the road against the Buffalo Bills. It does appear to be down to one of two options, but they spent most of the offseason focusing on one.
That would be finding a one-for-one slot replacement for Mike Hilton, who left in free agency, and second-year Antoine Brooks Jr. has been the top candidate in that regard. The alternative, however, is to employ James Pierre as the nickel defender who plays outside, which kicks Cameron Sutton into the slot.
“We hadn’t focused on that element of it because that’s what we know”, head coach Mike Tomlin said after practice today regarding the fifth-year veteran’s slot capabilities. “We know Cam is inside capable, so we spent some time focusing on others. But as we get towards the end, we need to tool him up and get him ready to go as an option in that space, and that’s why we’re having the discussion”.
A third-round pick back in 2017, Sutton has started nine games over the course of his career, including a number of them in the slot. He prides himself on knowing the role of every defender on the field and in being able to play any spot in the secondary, which is one of the reasons the coaching staff has been content to see what the defense looks like with other, less familiar options inside.
Tomlin said that it’s “very easy” for Sutton to shift from the outside to the slot and back again over the course of a game, which is what would be asked of him if Pierre emerges as the nickel defender, but it can be “difficult for others”.
“But that’s one of the things that attracted us to him even going back to the draft process”, he added. “We often laugh about the night before his pro day in Knoxville. We were blown away by his football intellect and that’s proven to be true over the course of his time here”.
Brooks ran with the first-team defense throughout the offseason up until his injury in the first preseason game. He played well in that contest, but has missed the past two games in spite of the fact that he did return the practice last week.
Arthur Maulet, a veteran who has logged about 800 defensive snaps over the past two seasons, was the team’s other major candidate in the slot. He is currently sidelined with an injury that he sustained in Saturday’s game. Shakur Brown, who had a rough fourth quarter including multiple penalties and a dropped interception, is their third option in the slot, excluding Sutton.
But it may well be that the former third-round pick emerges as the top slot option, which was the prevailing theory going back to OTAs, before reports emerged late of Brooks’ extensive playing time there. Still, chances are that we will see both Pierre and Brooks employed as the nickel defender this season depending upon the circumstances.