The highest-paid defense in the NFL.
That’s the label the Pittsburgh Steelers’ star-studded defense carried into the start of the 2022 season after the long-term extension for star safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Early on, they played like the highest-paid — and best — defense in the league, picking off Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow five times and sacking him seven times in a 23-20 overtime win.
However, after that game things fell apart a bit due to the injury to reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt, who missed Weeks 2-8 before returning in Week 10 against the New Orleans Saints after the Week 9 bye.
Once Watt was back in the fold, the Steelers started to play like one of the best defenses in football once again, especially down the stretch as the Steelers closed the season on a 7-2 run to get to 9-8 and just narrowly miss the playoffs under head coach Mike Tomlin. That stretch of play was rather impressive as they didn’t allow a second-half touchdown over more than 20 drives at one point and really shut down the opposition once everyone was completely back healthy.
Change could be on the horizon though, especially with cornerback Cameron Sutton coming off of a career year and poised to hit free agency. Despite the uncertainty entering free agency, Sutton is talking like he will remain with the Steelers, telling the Post-Gazette’s Ray Fittipaldo that the Steelers were playing their best ball towards the end of the season and have a foundation with which to build off of moving forward.
“I felt like we were just getting to our best ball toward the end of the year, getting to that comfort level in how we play and see the game,” Sutton said, according to original reporting from Fittipaldo. “The different looks and different disguises, having different versatile pieces on the back end and personnel packages. … We were really creating our identity. We have a foundation, and we have to build off that. We just have to continue to find those pieces, continue to broaden and be able to line up against these offenses we see and be successful.”
The different looks and disguises were able to happen due to the full availability of key pieces, such as the return of Watt to his elite form late in the season, the growth and comfort of veteran Damontae Kazee in the defense, allowing Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds to move around, and the overall growth and development of Sutton into a lockdown cornerback, at least based on the numbers.
During the 2022 season, opposing quarterbacks had just a 67.1 rating when targeting Sutton on the field, completing just 49% of the passes thrown his way. Those are elite-level numbers. Add in the career highs in interceptions (3) and passes broken up (15) it’s easy to see why Sutton should be a priority in free agency.
After really creating their identity and setting a foundation late in the season, it would be a major detriment to that identity and foundation if the Steelers were to let a homegrown cornerback playing at the level Sutton did in 2022 all of a sudden hit the open market and leave. As it sits right now, that feels extremely unlikely to happen from the Steelers’ perspective.
Retaining a key secondary piece and overall leader, and building off that foundation set late in the season should have the outlook for the Steelers’ defense in 2023 looking rather bright. That could lead to a bunch of wins and have the Steelers right in contention once again.