Back in March of 2021, cornerback Cam Sutton signed a two-year, $9 million dollar contract with Pittsburgh.
After being used primarily as a dime backer and nickel corner the years before, he had a chance to step up on the outside after the team released then starting outside corner, Steven Nelson. He had some definite growing pains, lacking the desired top-end speed or size most teams want from an outside cornerback, but he certainly was better at the end of 2021 compared to the beginning.
Now, going into the 2022 season Sutton impressed enough through the preseason to be one of the team’s outside corners in base and sliding inside for sub-packages. He has become one of the most vital chess pieces of this defense. Sunday, he accumulated 99 snaps of the 100 defensive snaps and while there were a few mistakes he stood up well to the vaunted Cincinnati Bengals passing attack, putting his best foot forward as he enters another contract year in Pittsburgh.
It comes as no surprise that Sutton’s best rep Sunday came in the slot as PFF graded him as the best slot defensive back in the NFL last week.
I’ve watched this play no less than 100 times and still get excited every time I watch it. Sutton gives Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd the inside as he has Devin Bush trying to wall off underneath. The acceleration from Sutton as soon as Boyd commits to the seam gives him the ability to go from cornerback to receiver. He shows great ball skills high-pointing the football over the middle and bringing it in. It was one of those plays, from the TV angle, as soon as you saw the ball in the air you knew Sutton was coming away with this thing. That “my ball” mentality.
While Sutton will always be suited better inside, he held his own when he was outside. Take a look at this rep below. Sutton is lined up man to man with Ja’Marr Chase at the bottom of the screen. You see how much Sutton respects Chase’s speed, quickly turning out of his backpedal. He does a great job sinking his hips and breaking down in unison with Chase, once he works the comeback. Chase is 100% strapped up.
Here’s another rep of Sutton matched up mano y mano with Chase. You can tell Sutton isn’t “urinating down his leg,” as Coach Tomlin would say, and easily eats up Chase on the fade route. He’s physical inside five yards, leaving Burrow’s pass floating into the sea of photographers. Great rep.
Another goal-line rep here from Sutton. You see he’s playing the speed out all the way, completely blocking off the inside, and putting himself in a great position to drive on the speed out. The rep doesn’t finish there for Sutton as he turns his head just as the football is going into the air and nearly is able to pick it off. He turns a potential game-tying touchdown into a turnover on downs. That type of awareness is why Sutton is so important to this Pittsburgh defense.
While certainly given some help with the amount of 2-deep looks the Steelers defense deployed Sunday, I didn’t realize the number of times Sutton was matched up with Chase throughout the day. As you can see from all the clips, he held up relatively well.
In this play, Sutton and Chase are lined up at the top of the screen. Sutton does miss his initial punch, as Chase slides by, but Sutton stays calm knowing he has help over the top. What I love about the rep is the way he clearly knows he has help and simply works underneath effectively walling off any possible throws. A textbook look at how bracket coverage can take a receiver out of the play.
Life as an NFL cornerback is a tough one. Not one I’d ever want to sign up for. The game itself plus the rules are highly slanted towards the offense, so naturally, you’re going to get beat once in a while. The same happened Sunday for Sutton.
The number one rule for a cornerback near the end zone is don’t get beat inside. You can’t let the receiver cross your face. Sutton is wary of this and works to take away the inside as Boyd begins to stem inside. However, that one misstep is all Boyd needs before jetting outside. While Sutton was technically “beat” on the play, he was still in a position that made it have to be a perfect throw from Burrow. Unfortunately for him, it was. Sutton was inches away from still being able to knock this one away. In the words of Tony D’Amato from ‘Any Given Sunday,’ “life’s this game of inches, so is football.”
Sutton also had two costly third-down penalties that kept drives alive for the Bengals. One was in the first quarter where Sutton clearly holds the receiver on a return route that Sutton picks off. The other was on a sack that likely doesn’t occur had it not been for Sutton holding the receiver. Luckily neither drive yielded points for the Bengals. You don’t want to take away Sutton’s physicality, but definitely has to clean up his technique or this will happen consistently, especially with the NFL’s emphasis on illegal contact in 2022.
This last clip we’ll review because I wanted to point out how the open receiver wasn’t necessarily on Sutton. It ended up being incomplete, but this was almost the game-tying touchdown before the end of regulation. The Steelers are running a form of inverted cover 2 at the top of the screen where Arthur Maulet is tasked with the deep half of the field. However, he doesn’t get on his horse, as he should, to cover that deep half, strafing the entire way back. Burrow sees this and tries to take advantage but misfires. Steelers luck out big time here.
There were certainly some mistakes, but when you have the microscope on any cornerback in today’s NFL you’re bound to find some. It’s all about who can make the least amount of them. Overall, I was really pleased with what I saw from Sutton Sunday. He is in rare territory, being one of the only drafted cornerbacks to pan out in Pittsburgh dating back to the days of Keenan Lewis (there’s a name for you). If he brings this type of play all through 2022, it’s hard to picture Pittsburgh not trying to keep him in the building going into 2023.
What did you think of Cam Sutton’s play from Sunday? Let me know in the comments below!