Teryl Austin isn’t as colorful as Mike Tomlin’s “squirreling nuts’ comment. But the conclusion is all the same. The Pittsburgh Steelers still aren’t quite sure how their nickel defense will look this season. Injuries haven’t helped the matter. Antoine Brooks Jr. has missed a chunk of camp, and the last two preseason games, with a leg injury. And Arthur Maulet lasted just a handful of snaps in Saturday’s win over Detroit before leaving with an ankle injury. though it appears to be a minor one.
That’s given the Steelers more questions than answers with just one preseason game to go. And limited some of the things the team has been able to do defensively.
“We haven’t really worked through any type of dime scenario because we’re still trying to solidify the nickel spot,” Austin told reporters Tuesday via a team transcript. “And until we get that solidified, I don’t think it makes sense to try to add another DB to the mix at this point.”
Brooks entered camp as the starting slot corner. But he’s missed the last two weeks with an injury. He’ll have to play – and play well – in Friday’s finale against Carolina in order to jump back into the race.
“It’s hard to catch up if you’re not practicing, if you’re not out there.” Austin said. “So it all will be determined on how fast he gets back and what he can do. The longer he’s out, the harder it is.”
Brooks’ appeal came from his bigger body and potential strength against the run and as a blitzer, a la Mike Hilton, but there might not be enough time for the Steelers to trust him playing significant snaps to start the season. Arthur Maulet has been more available but his play has merely been average. And he missed out on plenty of reps against the Lions, playing just two defensively before going down.
That leaves the Steelers with Cam Sutton, who Austin admits is the guy “we know” can play in the slot. Sutton’s gotten more work there over the last week including logging 12 snaps in the slot versus Detroit. Based on play and health, all signs point to Sutton shifting inside in nickel with James Pierre at RCB. Sutton is the most experienced and smartest option the Steelers have. Austin knows playing in the slot means being able to do a lot of things well.
“Nickel is a hard position. It’s a combination of a linebacker and a corner. It’s a hard position and it takes a lot of different skill. It takes linebacker skills in terms of reading the run. It takes DB skills in terms of covering the slots. And so it’s a unique position. And Cam we know can do that. And so our goal or charge was to find if we had somebody that could play that position inside, because I thought we had two really quality guys last year between Cam and Mike Hilton.”
Unfortunately, the Steelers haven’t gotten the results they were looking for. Sutton might not be the ideal candidate in terms of size and physicality but he’s improved. He’s also a lot more proven. Odds are strong the team will fall back on Sutton in the slot and play their best five, which is the most sensible thing for them to do.