Second-year cornerback James Pierre made his first NFL start on Sunday against the Las Vegas Raiders. That will remain a significant moment in his life, no matter how forgettable the game actually proved to be. it remains to be seen whether or not he will start again, depending upon how starter Joe Haden feels, but he’s not making the moment bigger than it is.
Perhaps it comes from, in part, the perspective gained from his former teammate, Mike Hilton, who was a starter one year after first entering the league. Both were undrafted, though Pierre succeeded in making his team right away. Hilton spent time on practice squads as a rookie, but made an immediate impact as a first-year player in 2016.
Hilton will be on the field next week as a member of the Cincinnati Bengals, with whom he signed as an unrestricted free agent in March on a four-year, $24 million deal. His departure is what helped pave the way for Pierre having this larger role, and speaking to reporters yesterday, he reflected a bit on how his one season playing with the former Steeler benefitted him.
“He helped me a lot”, he said, “just working hard, [playing] on special teams, control what you can control, and just keep your mind straight”. Though he wasn’t playing on special teams much later on, he first made the 53-man roster primarily due to his excellent special teams play in the preseason.
Pierre, too, seemingly made the Steelers’ roster in 2020 as a rookie due to his ability to play on special teams. He logged more than 200 snaps over 16 games, dressing for every one, during his rookie season, yet only played a few dozen snaps on defense all year, including the playoffs. Of his 10 tackles on the year, nine had come covering punts and kickoffs.
This year, Pierre has already logged 97 defensive snaps, registering 14 tackles and one pass defensed, though he does remain active on special teams, having already played 30 snaps for coordinator Danny Smith, 15 in each game.
Hilton was a beloved player for the fan base for the majority of his four-year tenure here, though they no longer seem to pay him much mind now that he is in a rival city. We will likely hear from him at some point over the course of the week about what it’s like to face his former team, and you can be sure we will discuss that.
But this piece is about the Steelers’ latest diamond-in-the-rough-hopeful, Pierre. We have heard about him far more than we have seen him, but he has done some good things over the course of his first 100 or so snaps. He’ll surely have a chance to build on that as the season progresses in the Steelers many mixtures of personnel in their defensive sub-packages.