When you lose quality starters, it’s sometimes best not to try to replace them 1-for-1, assuming that you can just plug in another player into that exact role and achieve the same results. After the Pittsburgh Steelers lost two starters in the secondary, they have favored versatility and unpredictability, at least in the early goings, to help compensate for the losses.
Cameron Sutton is now in the starting lineup at right outside cornerback in Steven Nelson’s place. But he also spent some time in the slot and at safety, in doing so giving opportunities for James Pierre to come in and play outside. When he dropped back to safety, Minkah Fitzpatrick came forward and played in the slot.
Rookie defensive back Tre Norwood was key, as the team’s primary slot defender, but he, too, was able to drop back to safety to allow the defensive backfield to move more pieces around and provide more different looks. It’s something new for Pittsburgh to have this many moving parts, as Joe Haden, who is steadfast in his outside-corner-only station, recently observed.
“A lot of dudes but me” can move around, he said on Thursday. “Previously Cam Sutton was the guy that could move around for us. But now with Minkah, with Tre, those dudes are legitimate nickels, safeties, and corners. They don’t really have a title. So being able to keep those dudes interchangeable, it’s definitely the most interchangeable parts that I’ve has since I’ve been here”.
In addition to Norwood, Fitzpatrick, and Sutton, Arthur Maulet also garnered some playing time, lining up in the slot. Through the extensive deployment of nickel and dime defenses, both Norwood and Pierre were able to garner an extensive amount of playing time—also helped by the fact that the Buffalo Bills offense was on the field for 85 snaps.
That doesn’t mean that each week’s gameplan is going to mirror what we saw this past weekend, of course, and indeed, it would be folly to repeat the same formula over and over again when part of its success was its unpredictability.
In other words, that was the plan specifically for the Buffalo Bills on the road in week one with the current level of experience and development of this particular secondary group. That could be a very different story against the Las Vegas Raiders in week two at Heinz Field with a game’s worth of reps under their belts.
But the point is that they have options. Head coach Mike Tomlin always preaches versatility, and now they have a group of young defensive backs who are willing and able to move around, allowing them to put different people in different situations. This interchangeability should be used as a chisel rather than a club.