In his first full year as GM, Omar Khan has reshaped this roster to the point where it looks distinctly different compared to a year ago. Though the core remains in place, there has been a ton of turnover to the bottom half of the team. Much of it, for the better, and I spent the morning praising Khan for putting together a plan that has real teeth to it, their ideals and wants matching their personnel.
But if there’s one area that’s still as unsorted as ever, it’s slot corner. After the draft, it still felt like a mess. And it only got more muddied Wednesday with the news slot corner Arthur Maulet is being released. Reportedly, Maulet is asking to be cut and the Steelers aren’t doing it on their own volition, but it’s another wrench into the team’s slot corner plan. Whatever that is.
As we wrote about last month, the Steelers’ slot corner snaps last year were dominated by two men – Maulet’s 472 and Cam Sutton’s 213. Maulet was the run-down slot corner, the Mike Hilton type, while Sutton kicked inside on passing situations with Maulet coming off the field to hide his below average coverage ability (he was briefly tried as an every-down slot…it didn’t go well).
Now, both those men are gone. Sutton to Detroit, Maulet out the door to whatever team will have him next. Which leaves Pittsburgh’s 2022 slot snaps of players currently on the roster looking like this:
Ahkello Witherspoon: 2
Miles Killebrew: 2
Elijah Riley: 2
Tre Norwood: 1
Minkah Fitzpatrick: 1
Eight snaps. That’s eight combined 2022 slot snaps on this roster. It’s not a good sign when your “leaders” are a corner who may also be cut before Week One, a pure special teamer, and a player on a Reserve/Futures contract far more likely to make the practice squad than the 53.
Pittsburgh boosted its secondary in the draft but focused on outside corners in Joey Porter Jr. and Cory Trice Jr., two long, press corners who can reroute and jam. Not prototypical slot corners who can cover #2s in 11 personnel. Perhaps Trice could carve out a niche as a tight end eraser but he’s not going to be your traditional slot corner the Steelers are looking for.
So what’s left? The leader right now might be Chandon Sullivan. He’s the most experienced slot corner on the team though he had a miserable 2022 season. According to PFF, of the 44 slot corner qualifiers last season, Sullivan had the 10th-worst passer rating against, 109.6, only a couple spots better than Maulet’s 119.1. While Sullivan allowed just one touchdown, he gave up an absurdly high 80% completion rate and nearly 14 yards per reception.
Everything else for Pittsburgh is theoretical. Levi Wallace has limited slot experience and lacks an ideal skill set there. He isn’t fierce against the run, he isn’t twitchy against the pass, and he was exposed in limited slot action last season. According to our charting, he allowed two receptions on two targets for 32 yards across 18 slot snaps last season. Tre Norwood has slot abilities but had a sophomore slump, barely saw the field the second half of last season, and his tackling is a major question mark. The opposite of Maulet, he won’t give you anything against the run. Damontae Kazee also has a minor slot background but figures to play a safety role in dime packages on third and down. Maybe he’s one-half of the solution to playing slot on early downs.
Patrick Peterson might be Pittsburgh’s fallback plan. Since signing, Peterson has discussed his desire and expectation to move around the Steelers’ defense. No one has specified what that means, it initially felt like he would be part of the corner rotation/inversion Pittsburgh likes to do on third downs, but perhaps it’ll be a larger role than that. Maybe he’ll see action in the slot, a heady player who can anticipate routes and use pre-snap leverage to cutdown on the route tree a receiver can attack him with.
But if that’s their plan, it’s still going to be brand new to Peterson, a 32-year old corner — he turns 33 in July — with declining physical skills learning a new spot. Typically when corners begin to lose their speed, they move to safety, not into the slot. And of course, this all assumes Joey Porter Jr. is ready for those consistent nickel snaps, which the team won’t know until they get him on the field this summer.
Before news of Maulet’s impending release, there was a justifiable concern over the team’s answer on passing downs. With Maulet gone too, there’s a worry over Pittsburgh’s plan for a run-downs corner and a pass-downs one. Ideally, you find someone who can do both, Mike Hilton was that man, but there’s no one on the roster who can do that right now.
It might still feel like the rough and tumble AFC North, staying in base defense to defend the run, but the division is evolving. The Cincinnati Bengals are a high-flying offense with arguably the best wide receivers room in football. The Baltimore Ravens have loaded up with Odell Beckham Jr. and first-round pick Zay Flowers, a slot killer, while the Cleveland Browns will lean more on their passing game this year in Deshaun Watson’s first full season. They also overhauled their receiver room trading for Elijah Moore and spending their first draft pick on WR Cedric Tillman.
It’s the alarm I sounded back in April. I’m sure Khan and company have an idea of what they want to do in the slot, it’s not catching them by surprise (though Maulet’s release might have) but in 2021, the team also had a “plan” of Maulet and Antoine Brooks to fight for slot corner reps. No one won, Minkah Fitzpatrick was shoehorned into the slot spot, struggled, moved back to FS, and the team just ended up putting Cam Sutton back in that spot on passing downs. Sutton’s not around to save the day this time. Pittsburgh will soon realize how much of a lifesaver he was.
If there is one primary concern about the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers, it’s slot corner. Khan has turned over many stones on this roster. But he shouldn’t be done exploring the team’s slot position. It’s possible the Steelers make a late summer move to trade for or sign somebody after cutdowns, potentially to be a Day One starter. I’m not convinced Pittsburgh has its guy right now.