If there is one single spot that is wide open for competition for the Pittsburgh Steelers this Summer, it is perhaps the slot cornerback position. Even with that said, it is readily apparent that second-year defensive back Antoine Brooks Jr. has been deemed the leading candidate for some time now—perhaps since Mike Hilton departed in free agency.
While we didn’t hear about it much until minicamp was over, multiple beat writers, such as Mike Prisuta and Noah Strackbein, made it very clear that Brooks was the guy in the slot at that time. He has been that guy in training camp as well, and is slated to start the Hall of Fame game.
Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick spoke to Pat Kirwan and Jim Miller on SiriusXM a short time ago from training camp, and discussed how Brooks, who was drafted as ‘half a linebacker, half a safety’, is adjusting to playing in the slot.
“We lost Mike Hilton in the slot. He was a guy that was a great blitzer. He’s a guy that was able to put pressure on the quarterback and put pressure on the run game”, he told his hosts. “Antoine is a similar guy. He’s a bigger body than Mike, so he’s gonna have a more physical presence when doing that. We’re trying to fill him in and see what he can do”.
The popular opinion heading out of free agency was that the Steelers’ best course of action would be to have Cameron Sutton kick into the slot in the nickel package and have James Pierre come onto the field to play outside. The team, however, has maintained that the slot position requires a different skill set.
“I played nickel in the past, and I think nickel is the most mentally demanding position on the defense”, Fitzpatrick said. “You have to know what every single person is doing around you, because if one person moves, it changes the whole entire scheme of the defense, and most of the time that changes your responsibility”.
“I think he’s definitely handling it well”, he added of Brooks, who was lauded by head coach Mike Tomlin coming out of Maryland last year for his football intelligence. “He’s a smart guy. We’ve all been keeping him under our wing, and he’s been handling it well, but it’s definitely a tough position”.
Of course, so is Sutton. But what Sutton lacks that Brooks has is that size and physicality, that aggressiveness to be equally as effective against the run and as a blitzer than he is in coverage. Coverage is easily Sutton’s strength, and he profiles best on the outside. So if Brooks can handle the slot, the coaches believe that is their best formation. It’s up to the Terrapin alum to prove them right.