It’s hard to find the next Mike Hilton. But Teryl Austin sure hopes to try. On paper, the easy decision would be to play Cam Sutton in the slot. He’s done it before, done it well, and he’s smart enough to handle all the responsibilities that come with it. But Sutton is more a traditional cover corner, not cut from the same cloth Hilton was. Having a guy like Hilton and on paper, someone like Antoine Brooks Jr, would give Austin and the Steelers’ defense what they covet most. Options.
Austin explained that in speaking to reporters Tuesday afternoon.
“I think that’s a big part of our defense if you watched our defense,” Austin via the team website. “What Mike and Cam do in there at nickel was a big part of what we did. And it drives us a little bit. Being able to cover and blitz and do a lot of things in the run game. It gives us position flexibility, it gives us personnel flexibility. We don’t always have to go big when they go with big people on the field and we can stay with that smaller package.”
Against heavy personnel last season (12, 22, 21, etc), the Steelers played a sub-package defense 19.3% of the time. And their run defense didn’t tremendously suffer for it. Of the 28 running plays against in these situations, the Steelers did allow a 4.9 YPC average but also just a 42.9% successful run rate by the opposing offense, an excellent number for a base defense, let alone a sub-package. Hilton was a quasi-linebacker willing to stick his nose into the fan. He had 30 tackles for loss in four years with the team, sixth of any Steeler over that span and by far the most of any DB. The next closest man was Joe Haden with 11.
That’s why the team has been so adamant about elevating a former safety like Brooks into that role. Or a physical slot corner like Arthur Maulet. But Brooks has been hurt and Maulet just average. With the preseason almost over, it’s hard to justify giving either of those guys slot snaps out of the gate, though one of them figures to at least play in dime.
“It gives us a lot of options and different things. So we’re just trying to find a guy that can can do it. I don’t know if we can, until we get those guys out [on the field].”
Maulet’s injury is considered day-to-day. Brooks didn’t play in the Lions’ game but practiced earlier in the week so his odds of suiting up versus Carolina should be high. It might all be too little, too late.