Quietly the longest tenured player in the Steelers secondary, currently entering his sixth season after being drafted in the third round, with the 94th pick in the 2017 draft, Cameron Sutton has seen his role steadily expand each season. After seeing limited snaps as a rookie, Sutton saw his snap count increase in 2018 before becoming a fixture in the teams sub packages in 2019 and 2020, notably forcing three fumbles and eight passes defended, and starting six games due to injuries in the latter season.
After losing a pair of linchpins on the backend in Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton, Sutton entered the 2021 season as a full time starter on the boundary, playing on the outside in base while remaining a versatile chess piece on sub package downs. Sutton undoubtedly put together his most productive season to date, starting 16 games and compiling 52 tackles, four tackles for losses, and a pair of interceptions, all career highs, along with a forced fumble and six passes defended.
While Sutton proved to be a capable defender on the boundary, particularly in base where his tackling is an asset, he did struggle to contain receivers downfield at times this past season. Likewise, with the team bringing in free agent Levi Wallace and resigning Ahkello Witherspoon, the Steelers field a pair of lengthy cornerbacks with experience on the boundary, which should allow Sutton to continue moving around in sub packages.
Today, we’ll be taking a look at Cam Sutton’s performance from the 2021 season opener on the road against the Buffalo Bills, in what was arguably his best game of his five year NFL career. Sutton was able to provide tight coverage both on the boundary and in the slot, as well as serving various zone assignments including serving as the post safety as the team attempted to play Minkah Fitzpatrick closer to the line of scrimmage.
Playing every single defensive snap, 85 in total, Sutton finished with five tackles, two tackles for losses, and two passes defended, consistently forcing receivers to make tough contested catches all afternoon. Despite facing eight targets in the afternoon and allowing five catches, Sutton limited Bills receivers to just five yards after the catch, a testament to his improved ability as a tackler.
After seeing the Bills take the opening kickoff well into Steelers territory, Cam Sutton and company were tasked with the tough task of defending a short field on their first appearance of the season. On the second play of Buffalo’s first drive, Tomlin and company opt to get aggressive, deploying Cover 2 on 2nd and short and giving their cornerbacks the freedom to trigger and contest short game concepts.
Aligned in press coverage to the field against a trips set, Sutton opens at the snap with vision on the quarterback, diagnosing quick game and planting to drive Stefon Diggs as he breaks out towards the flat. Closing to the upfield shoulder with proper leverage, Sutton does not stop his feet on contact, shooting through the near leg of the receiver to stop the catch in the backfield for a loss. Where many cornerbacks stop their feet to break down in these situations, allowing the receiver to attack their leverage in space, Sutton’s decision to finish at full speed through Diggs does not afford the ball carrier the ability to turn upfield, making this a much easier tackle for Sutton.
Playing against the best athletes in the world, naturally, NFL cornerbacks are going to allow receptions throughout the course of a game. Likewise, the better corners understand that receptions are going to happen, making it important to stay consistent on a down to down basis and make receivers work hard by staying in phase and contesting the catch point at all times.
Below, aligned in off man coverage in a Cover 1 Robber scheme, Sutton aligns at seven yards depth with inside leverage against the receivers wide split, anticipating an in-breaking route. At the snap, Sutton opens into a half turn, taking away the inside and preparing to run to anything out-breaking. As the receiver stems inside to create contact at the top of the route, Sutton remains balanced, fights through the contact, and closes to contest the catch point, forcing Emmanuel Sanders to make a difficult catch along the sideline.
Throughout the game, the Bills routinely got creative in short yardage situations, and most of the time, Cam Sutton answered the call, helping get the Pittsburgh defense off the field with some extremely impressive reps. Here, with the Bills facing a third and short near midfield, Brian Daboll attempts to catch the Steelers defense selling out to stop the run with a flea flicker, drawing up a one man route concept with his best receiver, Stefon Diggs, bluffing a crack block before running a deep out route.
At the snap, Sutton gains depth patiently, staying disciplined and keeping his eyes glued to Diggs hip, accelerating to cut off the receivers path downfield once he takes off. As his acceleration to cut off the vertical route compromised his outside leverage, Diggs is able to work Sutton’s blindspot and break toward the sideline. Amazingly, Sutton diagnoses the route quickly, utilizing a speed turn to turn himself around and close toward the near hip, accelerating downhill to undercut the route for an impressive pass breakup. This rep is a perfect example of how sensational efforts by a defensive player can single handedly foil a perfectly designed and executed play by an opposing offense.
With the Steelers once again in Cover 2, Cam Sutton is aligned as the field corner vs an empty set, serving as the flat defender to a trips look. At the snap, Sutton opens with vision on the quarterback, patiently gaining depth to close off the intermediate throwing window and playing everything top down. Upon diagnosing Josh Allen pull the pin on a hitch route, Sutton plants, drives downhill efficiently, and closes to tackle the catch, allowing no room for the receiver to turn upfield.
Notice while Sutton gives the allusion that he is bailing, he stays patient and remains in phase to drive and tackle the hitch to force a third and long. Sutton held Bills receivers to just five yards after the catch on five receptions in this game, a testament to his quick trigger, football IQ, and improved tackling ability.
One area where Sutton has steadily improved throughout his career is his patience in his pedal, keeping himself in phase to contest quick game and limit yards after the catch. Here, with the Steelers in a Cover 3 scheme, Sutton is tasked with a deep 1/3 zone assignment. Despite his deep responsibilities, Sutton does a great job of keying the quarterbacks drop for a three step read, allowing him to refrain from bailing out and prepare to trigger downhill.
At the snap, Sutton patiently gives ground, staying on top of any receiver entering his zone while keeping an eye on Josh Allen. As he sees Allen declare his shoulders on a hitch route to Stefon Diggs, Sutton plants and drives downhill, arriving to contest the catch point while securing the tackle with his off hand, preventing any room for yards after the catch despite narrowly missing a pass breakup.
Here, with the Bills facing third and goal, Sutton is operating in a man coverage assignment against Gabriel Davis, aligned as the #3 receiver in a trips set to the field. Working with a pair of help defenders to his inside, Sutton in press coverage with outside leverage. At the snap, Davis stems hard inside, causing Sutton to compromise his outside leverage as Davis declares upfield.
While Sutton recovers well, flipping his hips to get back into phase on the receivers back hip, a beautiful throw from Allen is enough to thread the needle past Sutton’s outstretched arm, resulting in a contested catch touchdown for Gabriel Davis. While the recovery from Sutton was enough to put him in phase to contest the catch, ideally, you would like to see him maintain his outside leverage, understanding that if the receiver declares inside he will be picked up by the help defenders.
One of the best aspects of Sutton’s versatility in the Steelers sub packages centers around his ability to play in the middle of the defense at linebacker depth, giving the team the speed and coverage ability to protect themselves up the seams in Cover 2 and inverted Cover 3 schemes.
Below, with the Steelers in a split field safety look on a fourth down attempt from Buffalo, Sutton is tasked with carrying Gabriel Davis up the seam. At the snap, Sutton opens into a crossover run, maintaining his inside leverage and working to locate the near hip as the receiver declares vertical up the seam.
Once in phase, Sutton reads Davis’s eyes, turns to locate the football, and gets his left hand across for an acrobatic pass breakup, getting the Steelers defense off the field in a key situation. While Sutton has proven capable both as a boundary and nickel corner, his ability to function as a linebacker in the Steelers sub packages has proven invaluable over the past three seasons.
With the Bills once again facing a fourth and short near midfield late in the game, Daboll once again tries to get fancy, this time calling a fake quarterback sneak into a delayed toss play. Once again, Cam Sutton was ready to answer the call for the Steelers defense. After following Isaiah McKenzie in motion across the formation, Sutton keys Josh Allen’s eyes, immediately diagnosing the short swing pass and triggering downhill immediately, ducking underneath the fullback with proper outside leverage, and securing a nice leg tackle to chop down the back deep in the backfield.
Often described by Mike Tomlin as a cerebral player, Cam Sutton’s ability to read opposing quarterbacks and trigger quickly was arguably his best trait this past season, and stood out repeatedly throughout this game. While he isn’t necessarily the most naturally gifted athlete at the position, his eye discipline is extremely consistent on every rep, and allows him to routinely make impact plays.
Despite giving up a touchdown on a tough contested catch, Sutton rebounded to make a pair of fourth down stops down the stretch of the Steelers season opening comeback win. Throughout the game, Sutton’s eye discipline was extremely consistent, and routinely landed him in phase to contest the catch point and trigger downhill in the run game.
While Ahkello Witherspoon and newcomer Levi Wallace should help Sutton continue to play both in the slot and within the box in sub packages, his consistency in tackling the catch and providing sound run defense should keep him on the field as a boundary starter in base as well. While his lack of top end athleticism likely prevents him from ever becoming a corner capable of erasing top receivers on a weekly basis, his football IQ, toughness, and communication make him a plus starter in the NFL. I’ll have an evaluation of one of his tougher games, that being Week 14 at Minnesota, coming up next week!