One of the most essential tools one needs to play the cornerback position at a high level in the NFL is to have a short memory. You have to forget and move past the plays that you allow, the plays that you miss, because often enough, you’re on your own the very next snap, and if you get beat, it’s six.
The Pittsburgh Steelers watched James Pierre start at Joe Haden’s cornerback spot on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, and they saw him lose repeatedly. He struggled in all phases, from coverage to tackling, even in uncharacteristic fashion. And he didn’t appear to play with confidence.
Head coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged that he observed just this. He was asked earlier today by reporters whether or not he saw Pierre affected by this, and he said that he had. Asked if he was concerned, he said, “I was in the stadium, and that’s why we made the changes that we did. We’ll see where this week leads us”.
Pierre has been the Steelers’ first man up at outside cornerback all season. He has started four games now this year, three at Haden’s spot and one on the right side for Cameron Sutton. He has had his ups and downs, but Sunday was a very obvious low point, the sort of outing where you can witness the snowballing effect of cumulative failures.
Tomlin’s comments seem to imply that Pierre could be in for a demotion. And it kind of already started. He only played 85 percent of the snaps against the Bengals, suggesting that he was subbed out. And indeed, he was replaced for the final 10 defensive snaps of the game, or the final two drives, by Ahkello Witherspoon.
While he expressed some optimism that the Steelers would be getting Haden back this week after missing the past two games due to a foot injury, and thus would eliminate the need for Pierre to start, does this go beyond that?
The team did trade for Witherspoon shortly before the season started, yet he’s been a healthy scratch for nine out of 11 games. Will he start getting a helmet now, and be the next man up on the outside?
Truth be told, Pierre has not played great all season. Previously, his real calling card was sound tackling, but the past two weeks have put the lie to that. And if his confidence is shaken, then it could take a while to get that back.
I don’t know whether or not Tomlin’s comments really imply a demotion for the second-year cornerback, but it felt at the time like there was a reason that they were trading for Witherspoon. It was even wondered initially if he was bring brought in to start, or at least to be the nickel back (playing outside with Sutton in the slot).
That obviously didn’t happen. But he’s the most experienced player in the secondary short of Haden, who has not been dressing due to his lack of a role on special teams. It’s not like this would be falling back on some unproven commodity.