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Which Nickel Combination Works Best For Pittsburgh?

Arthur Maulet

One of the main questions this offseason for the Pittsburgh Steelers on the defensive side of the football pertained to who they were going to line up in the nickel package with the losses of Mike Hilton and Steven Nelson this offseason. Pittsburgh did elect to resign CB Cam Sutton to a two-year deal this offseason and have been testing him on the outside after playing him mainly in the slot as a nickel or dime defender in previous seasons. With Sutton slotted to line up on the boundary, the Steelers looked to open training camp with former safety/dime backer Antoine Brooks Jr. and Arthur Maulet to battle it out for slot duties as the team’s starting nickel defender.

However, Brooks suffered a lower body injury during the Steelers’ first preseason game against the Cowboys and missed nearly two weeks of practices, setting back his development as he adjusts to a new role on defense in only his second season with the team. Maulet has also had his ups and downs in training camp thus far, having moments in the second preseason game against the Eagles where receivers where gaining separation against him fairly easily from the slot with him in the nickel. Again, Maulet and Brooks both have two more preseason games to get valuable reps under their belt to put better film out there to impress coaches, but the missed time by Brooks and underwhelming play thus far from Maulet doesn’t give a nod of confidence.

Along with their struggles, Sutton himself has had an adjustment to playing a full-time role on the boundary. He has allowed separation to outside receivers at the top of their routes, being a tad slow to react to their breaks out of the routes. Sutton has also struggled with pure speed on the outside, having a couple of moments in the Eagles game where the receiver got on top of him and was wither bailed out by a bad throw or allowed a completion along the sideline. Alex Kozora noted in his post highlighting DC Keith Butler’s interview that the team has considered moving Sutton back into the slot and sending second-year CB James Pierre out to play the RCB spot opposite of Joe Haden in the team’s nickel package.

In fact, Kozora stated in his last practice report of training camp that the team actually deployed Sutton in the slot and Pierre out on the boundary for several reps during practice on Wednesday. Pierre has been the training camp darling this offseason when it comes to team practices, making an impact by using his length and aggressiveness to contest passes and displaying the ball skills to take the ball away. Dave Bryan has often said on the Terrible Podcast that Pierre has a ball magnet in him and given defensive assistant/secondary coach Teryl Austin’s mandate to make splash plays on the football, Pierre has set himself up well to see increased play time in 2021.

Still, Pierre has some areas of his game that he needs to clean up. In his first two preseason games, we have seen him be a tad slow to react to WRs breaking out of their route, especially on inside breaking routes. While his physicality and competitive demeanor are what you are looking for in a long boundary corner that can play press man coverage on the outside, he will have to show better anticipation and situational awareness to be a more consistent cover man that demands starting snaps.

Kozora stated after the practice that his best guess would be that Joe Haden and Cam Sutton play as the boundary cornerbacks in the team’s base defense, but Sutton would kick inside to the slot and James Pierre would roll out to the outside corner when the team goes to the nickel package when the team begins its season in Buffalo Week 1.

What’s your ideal nickel package look like to start the season for the Pittsburgh Steelers? Are you a fan of Cam Sutton going from the boundary to the nickel depending on the defensive package, or would you rather see him play on the boundary full-time with a primary nickel defender? Who do you think Pittsburgh will roll out there in the nickel package for Week 1 against the Bills? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!

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