The Pittsburgh Steelers have not revealed exactly what their starting secondary is going to look like in the season opener, and there’s no reason for them to do it now. While slight, it is an advantage any time you can conceal information from your opponent, and as defensive coordinator Keith Butler said, they’re going to let “dadgum Buffalo” figure out who’s going to be out there.
Complicating matters is the recent acquisition of Ahkello Witherspoon, a fifth-year veteran who has started 33 of 47 games played, though injuries over the course of his career have had him in and out of the starting lineup.
Most recently, the assumption has been that Cameron Sutton would start opposite Joe Haden, and that second-year James Pierre would be the nickel defender, playing on the outside. You can probably count wide receiver Chase Claypool among those who would endorse that move.
The second-year man talked about Pierre after practice and how much he enjoys working against him in practice. “Pierre gives me the toughest [time] because I think he presses the most out of them”, he said of the cornerbacks he faces. “He just knows how to play me pretty good, so I love going against Pierre, because he gives me a tough matchup”.
Pierre was undrafted out of small-school Florida Atlantic last year, and the very fact of his making the 53-man roster in the first place was impressive all by itself, given the climate of the 2020 offseason. There wasn’t even a preseason, yet he showed enough in training camp to make the team.
And might be in line to start? We really don’t know for sure at this point, but one has to figure that either he or Witherspoon is going to be the fifth defensive back on the field. He took a lot of first-team snaps throughout the offseason with Haden being given time on the sidelines.
Of course, there wouldn’t even be a conversation about looking for another starting defensive back if not for the salary cap plunge that resulted in the team cutting Steven Nelson, who started on the right side for the past two seasons.
They cleared about $8 million in cap space with that move, which they partially used to re-sign Sutton as a cheaper alternative. The Witherspoon trade also cost them $1.5 million, minus displacement, while Pierre obviously remains very affordable as a second-year former college free agent.