Of all the position battles the Steelers have had throughout training camp, which will be settled officially over the final two preseason games this Saturday against Detroit and next Friday against Carolina, few have as many moving pieces and contenders as the battle at cornerback. The replacement for Mike Hilton as the team’s slot corner is the main spot that is available, but so too are outside snaps in the wake of Steven Nelson’s release.
Cameron Sutton can play either spot and will assume a lot of those responsibilities, but the opportunity has been there for one or more defensive backs to earn themselves a major role on Sundays. Some frontrunners have emerged to pick up those reps, particularly in the slot, but head coach Mike Tomlin expressed after the final training camp practice of 2021 Wednesday afternoon that the competition has not officially been decided yet.
“I’m not ready to discuss that,” Tomlin said. “We’ve got a lot of guys working there. We’ve got options there that haven’t been working there, to be quite honest with you. I think today was the first day we put Cam Sutton inside, for example. And so what you’re looking at might not be the only candidates.”
The leading contenders to take over the slot thus far have been former safety Antoine Brooks Jr., a sixth-round pick in 2020, and Arthur Maulet, a free agent signing from the New York Jets this offseason. The two have accumulated most of the snaps and work there, overshadowing other candidates like undrafted players Shakur Brown, Mark Gilbert, and Lamont Wade, as well as second-year corner James Pierre and 2021 draft pick Tre Norwood.
Brooks in particular has looked like the top option to earn the job, though it was an interception by Maulet that prompted the question from a reporter on Wednesday.
One other wrinkle to the situation, which Tomlin stressed, is Sutton. Thriving more as an inside corner for the Steelers, which earned him a second contract this offseason, Sutton could stay at home inside rather than assume Nelson’s work outside. That would suddenly switch the primary open position to an outside corner and a different skillset, where Pierre is the expected frontrunner at this time.
Thus far in camp and two preseason games, many defensive backs have performed well for the Steelers. Some like Gilbert, Norwood, Brooks, UDFA Donovan Stiner, and even recent signing Lafayette Pitts have made big plays on defense, while others like Brown have done well on special teams. The team’s last two preseason games, the first on Saturday against the Lions, are the crucial deciders as to which of the many players make the roster, and who out of that group will assume the open spots on the main defense, whether in the slot or outside.