Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler told reporters after today’s practice that he was intentionally being “very ambiguous” about the defense’s plans for their sub-packages and how they plan to defend certain players, such as the Buffalo Bills’ Stefon Diggs. His star defender in the secondary, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, probably did him no favors with his comments on second-year cornerback James Pierre.
“I love JP. He’s a great player”, he told reporters after practice today, with video of the interview not currently available. “He works hard. I’ve trained with him in the offseason. We were working out together, going over plays and stuff. He’s a guy that we’re definitely gonna use a lot this year, and he’s gonna help us out a lot”.
Pierre has been a frontrunner for possible increased playing time all offseason, even if the likelihood of that has ebbed and flowed over the course of the year. Early on, Antoine Brooks Jr. was being used in the slot, before he got hurt. More recently, they brought in veteran Ahkello Witherspoon.
But if Fitzpatrick is to be believed, then it sounds like Pierre will indeed be the Steelers’ nickel defender, as has been the prevailing theory for a while now. While it’s no surprise, it also wasn’t a certainty (technically, it still isn’t, but it’s the most logical explanation for Fitzpatrick’s comments).
The Steelers had more depth in their secondary last year than at perhaps any other time that I can recall in recent decades, with Steven Nelson as their starter opposite Joe Haden, Mike Hilton in the slot, and Cameron Sutton as the dime defender, with Justin Layne waiting in the wings.
They lost both Nelson and Hilton in the offseason, upgrading Sutton to full-time starter, and most of the offseason has been spent searching for solutions for the nickel. The final conclusion may well end up landing on Pierre, the 2020 college free agent.
He did log an extensive amount of starting snaps in practice and the preseason, with Haden not needing those reps for himself. He has been consistently praised by his teammates and coaches, but we’ve only seen a limited sample size during the preseason.
Does he have what it takes to be a nickel starter in the NFL? Fitzpatrick seems to think so, and he also thinks that he’s going to get the opportunity to show it.