Perhaps nobody in a Pittsburgh Steelers uniform who wasn’t a high rookie draft pick entered the 2021 season with more hype behind him than second-year cornerback James Pierre, a tall, small-school product who defied the odds by making the roster in 2020 during a pandemic, a college free agent with only training camp to prove himself.
It helped, perhaps, that we didn’t even get to see him much because there were no open practices nor preseason games. All we got were the glowing words of teammates, coaches, and reporters, and for most of the 2020 season, just some good work on special teams. It wasn’t until late that year that he got some snaps on defense, and suddenly we thought we might have something.
Pierre certainly believes they still do, even if he was ultimately benched last season after making four starts due to injury. And he was truly benched. After he was taken out of the defensive lineup, he didn’t play another snap on defense, while Justin Layne did.
While he didn’t say it, one wonders if that’s not a step the coaches took with an eye toward his own good. He seemed like he was losing confidence and pressing at the end of his playing time, even though he had done a number of good things, mixed in with the bad.
Speaking with Chris Adamski earlier this month, he insisted that this past season showed that he belongs as a cornerback going up against NFL-level wide receivers. “For sure”, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter notes he repeated four times.
“I just have to make the plays I am supposed to make,”, he said in reflecting back upon a sophomore season in which he too often failed to do that. “That’s basically it”. The one notable exception came in week five against the Denver Broncos when he sealed the game with an end-zone interception—shortly after having given up a 39-yard touchdown pass to Courtland Sutton that pulled the visiting team to within one score with more than five minutes left to play.
That game marked Pierre’s second start of the season, but he had been getting playing time throughout the year as the Steelers mixed and matched assignments in a new-look secondary after losing two starting cornerbacks.
A midseason injury suffered by Joe Haden put Pierre back under the microscope and into the starting lineup, but he would only make it halfway though. His struggles through the next two games were enough to get him pulled following a 41-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, with Ahkello Witherspoon taking over.
But as far as the 25-year-old is concerned, that’s far from the end of his story. He’s not just a special teams player, and he intends to find a role on defense again. Given the retention of Witherspoon and the addition of Levi Wallace in free agency, that will be easier said than done, but don’t think for a second that the coaching staff has given up on him. He has the talent. He just has to make the plays, as he said himself.