One of the elements of tonight’s game that I was most interested in seeing was how the Pittsburgh Steelers were going to handle the nickel defense from a personnel standpoint, with the first-team defense expected to play. With the caveat that potential starting slot defender Antoine Brooks Jr. did not play, it is noteworthy that their plan for the game was, indeed, to move Cameron Sutton from outside corner into the slot.
Throughout the offseason, since losing slot defender Mike Hilton in free agency, the Steelers’ top priority had been to find another player who can come in and play in the slot. With Sutton moving into the starting lineup outside in place of Steven Nelson, Brooks, a second-year safety, was the top candidate. He played well in the first preseason game, but had been injured since. Despite returning to practice this past week, he did not play.
Arthur Maulet had been playing in the slot with the first-team defense since then. He did not tonight. Instead, they brought in James Pierre to play in Sutton’s spot on the outside while rolling Sutton into the slot. Pierre started the previous two games since Joe Haden was not playing, but was now a sub-package player.
To his credit, Sutton does have several starts as the slot defender for the Steelers, including four just last season when Hilton missed time. But the coaches look for a specific skill set out of their slot defender, which they were hoping to find in somebody like Brooks.
It remains to be seen what the plan ultimately is. Given that he is already back at practice, we can hopefully assume that Brooks will be able to play in the final preseason game, and there are still several weeks before the regular season begins. Is that enough time for him to establish himself as the nickel starter?
The Steelers probably would have mixed Sutton into the slot earlier, but the simple fact was that they already knew plenty about him in that role, so they spent their time this offseason gathering information about the variables that were more obscure to them.
But it’s hard to read what this means. Even after Haden left the game (by design), Justin Layne came onto the field as the nickel defender, playing outside, with Sutton moving into the slot. Did they just want to get a long look at this setup tonight, or is this what the first-team nickel currently is?
Speaking personally, I’m not sure there is a bad answer between a starting lineup that features Pierre as the nickel defender on the outside with Sutton in the slot or one with Brooks as the slot, keeping Sutton outside. I think they’re both capable of playing reasonably well, and ultimately, as was recently hinted, we will most likely see a mixture of nickel groupings based on in-game context.