Joe Haden accomplished something in 2019 no Steeler has accomplished since 1997. He went to the Pro Bowl as a cornerback. In 1997 Carnell Lake made the Pro Bowl as a cornerback in a season he played both safety and cornerback. The last time a Steeler made the Pro Bowl after playing cornerback full time was Rod Woodson’s last season as a Steeler, in 1996.
That leads to the question asked in the title, is this the best cornerback room the Steelers have had since Rod Woodson left? Let’s take a look.
The outside corners
Joe Haden gave the Steelers their first Pro Bowl corner since the 1990’s, and their first 5 interception season by a cornerback since the 2000 season. Haden joined the Steelers in 2017 as a free agent. Haden had been asked by the Browns to take a pay cut after a series of injuries, and Haden responded by asking to be released. When the Browns granted his request, the Steelers swooped in, signing his to a 3 year deal only hours after his release.
Joe Haden’s arrival in Pittsburgh helped lock down a position of weakness, and helped propel the Steelers pass defense from below average from 2014-2016 to ranking 5th in passing yards allowed in 2017, and the defense to their first top ten ranking in both points and yards allowed since 2012. In 2019 teh addition of Minkah Fitzpatrick helped shore up the deep help behind Joe Haden, and when teams started avoiding Minkah Fitzpatrick and the middle of the field, Joe Haden started attacking routes more aggressively and ended up with 5 interceptions and 17 passes defended, the most interceptions since his rookie season in 2010, and the most passes defended since 2014, the last year he made the Pro Bowl.
Joe Haden isn’t the athlete he was in his first 5 seasons, age and injuries have slowed him a bit, but he makes up for it with technique, intelligence, experience and a defense that allows him to play to his strengths. With Terrell Edmunds playing safety behind Haden, Haden took a good amount of gambles to make plays, and Terrell Edmunds was up to the task of limiting the damage when the gambles didn’t work out, at least most of the time.
In 2020 expect the Steelers to continue to play Joe Haden to his strengths. He isn’t a corner you want covering a receiver on an island anymore. If you can limit his responsibility to either deep or shallow areas, he is incredibly good. The Steelers should continue to use him as a deep zone defender in cover-3 and quarters, and in some of their more creative coverages, while making sure he has help behind him when they ask him to cover in man, so he can aggressively attack shorter routes. While it’s fruitless to try and guess stats for corners when the better they play, the less opportunity they have to make plays, I wxpect a good year for Joe Haden in 2020, he is still an incredible player when he is used to his strengths, and the Steelers have shown they can do that.
Steven Nelson joined the Steelers in 2019 after his rookie contract with the Chiefs ended. Nelson was a questionable signing, as he led the NFL in receiving yards allowed in 2018. Nelson, in an interview after signing with the Steelers, accepted the results, but put a lot of blame on a defensive scheme that asked corners to take a lot of man coverage responsibility without much help, and in predictable fashion.
“You’re a target to other teams, referees, fans. It’s just not a good thing,” Nelson said. “You have to switch it up. It’s the National Football League. These offenses are smart. If you switch it up like these other offenses are doing, you can make plays.”
Steven Nelson left the Chiefs for the Steelers, and the Chiefs replaced their defensive coordinator and brought in safety Tyrann Mathieu to help the cornerbacks. The results support Steven Nelson’s take, as the Chiefs defense went from 31st to 8th in passing yards allowed and won the Super Bowl, while Steven Nelson went from giving up the most yards to a season to a season where he posted the 5th lowest QB rating against of any player targeted at least 70 times.
While Joe Haden showcased his strength attacking short routes in 2019, Steven Nelson was the corner that didn’t give up many deep plays. He’s a good man corner, and a great fit for the Steelers pattern matching coverages where he is responsible for the deepest routes. 2020 will be an interesting one for Steven Nelson, because while Joe Haden has three years on the Steelers, Nelson will be entering his second season on the team, and it will be interesting to see how his role and performance evolve. Nelson also worked mostly on the same side of he defense as Minkah Fitzpatrick, and how they play together after an offseason on the same team will be a key part of the growth of the defense.
The Steelers cornerback position is deep.
Mike Hilton is the Steelers nickle back, a position that is very different from a normal cornerback job. Mike Hilton plays a major role in run defense and situational pass rushing. While outside corners are often tasked with helping stop outside runs, Mike Hilton takes on blockers, including tight ends and offensive lineman regularly. He is very good at that part of his job, with only 3 defensive backs recording more sacks, and 1 defensive back with more tackles for a loss in the last 3 seasons. The only defensive back to beat him in both categories is Jamal Adams, an all-pro strong safety who is nearly the size of an inside linebacker.
Mike Hilton gets a bad rap for being a poor cover corner, and while he isn’t a lock down cover corner while also being one of the best blitzing cornerbacks in the NFL, his cover skills are underrated. He was targeted a lot in 2019, posting the second highest targets per cover snap on the team, second only to Joe Haden. With 28 completions on 47 targets and 10 breakups, Haden led Steeler cornerbacks in the percentage of targets that resulted in a pass defense and the ratio of completions to breakups.
Mike Hilton was the second more frequently targeted Steeler in coverage snaps, but he broke up over 20% of those passes, and gave up less than 3 catches per breakup, both stats led Steeler cornerbacks. Hilton does have his weaknesses though, he isn’t great in deep coverage, which led to him leading Steeler cornerbacks in yards per catch allowed and the entire team in yards per cover snap allowed.
Mike Hilton in 2019 was targeted a lot, and while there is a good argument for him being the weakest link in coverage, he also was the best defender not named Minkah Fitzpatrick at breaking up pass attempts coming his way. In my opinion, the fact that he is the Steelers slot corner, and slot targets have become the most effective targets in the NFL drive both his target rate and yards per cover snaps allowed, and the pass breakup rate is more revealing of his true value in coverage. The bottom line is Mike Hilton is a really good slot defender, a position which has become one of the toughest to play.
Cameron Sutton is the Steelers dime back, and he brings a very different skill set to the Steelers. While Mike Hilton is locked in as the nickle slot defender, Sutton plays all over the field, taking on everything from linebacker responsibilities when teams motion receivers into the backfield, slot corner, outside corner and deep zone responsibilities. There’s no coverage role he can’t hold down at an acceptable level.
Cameron Sutton allowed the fewest yards per cover snap of any Steeler defensive back other than Minkah Fitzpatrick, while ranking third in targets per cover snap by also allowing the lowest yards per catch on any Steeler defensive back. There has to be a caveat applied to all of Cameron Sutton’s per cover snap stats, because he is the dime back, and saw the lowest percentage of rushing plays of any Steeler. He played a lot when opponents were in obvious pass situations, and with the Steelers being the best deep ball defense in the league, he saw a lot of underneath throws, because teams couldn’t find success throwing deep when the Steelers were expecting it. But it also needs to be stated that Cameron Sutton played a part in that, because when the deep middle wasn’t being defended by Minkah Fitzpatrick, it was Sutton himself back there more often than not.
It is clear that Cameron Sutton is an excellent player in coverage, but he has never been a player you want on the field against the run, and he doesn’t win when blocked by receivers, let alone backs or tight ends. A lot of times fans and even analysts will look at Sutton and Hilton as if they are playing the same position, but that couldn’t be more untrue. Mike Hilton fits the linebacker/cornerback role that is the Steelers slot defender, while Cameron Sutton can play any defensive back position but that one at a pretty high level.
The Steelers have 4 really good cornerbacks, with 4 different skill sets. In 2019 they were able to use all of them in complimentary ways and the defense excelled.
Justin Layne was the Steelers second third round pick in 2019, a raw but talented prospect with good size (6’2”) and athleticism (87th percentile SPARQ score). as a rookie Layne was inactive for six of the first ten games, before finishing the season on the active roster. The last six games, Layne was a staple special teams player, taking over Artie Burns’ gunner role.
Heading into the 2020 season there doesn’t seem to be much opportunity for Layne to get snaps on defense without injuries forcing the Steelers to play him. Layne will likely be a core special teams player, as the team has only two players with NFL experience as a gunner on the active roster (Ray-Ray McCloud the other). That will earn him a spot on the active roster, and that means you will end up on defense at some point. The Steelers were able to give Justin Layne a redshirt season to get in NFL shape and learn the defense, and it looks likely they will be able to limit his play time in year two, hopefully he can make the most of that time and look good in the snaps he does get, because it sure would be nice to finally see the Steelers draft and develop a starting cornerback again.
James Pierre was unknown to most Steelers fans, and even though there was buzz about him coming out of training camp, it was unlikely the Steelers would keep him over Justin Layne, and six cornerbacks is more than they usually carry on the roster. Pierre, like Layne is 6’2”, and he is a physical cornerback who reminds me a bit of Joe Haden with his physical defense and strengths in short coverage. That comparison is to Joe Haden today, not to Joe Haden when he was younger and a truly elite shut down corner you could put on an island.
James Pierre also played safety in college, and he looks good in zone defense, but he is also a solid tackler and can blitz, so he could develop into an outside corner, slot defender or a jack-of-all-trades role. The Steelers liked him enough to put him on the 53 man roster, and while that could change, right now it looks like he is a player they view as one worth investing in. With both Sutton and Hilton finishing their contracts in 2020, there will be room for someone to step up, and Pierre has a shot to be that guy.
In my opinion this group is as good or better than other cornerback rooms the Steelers have had since the late 1990’s. The chief competition coming from the 2000 season when Chad Scott, DeWayne Washington and DeShea Townsend were a very good trio and the 2008 Super Bowl unit of Ike Taylor, Bryant McFadden, Townsend and William Gay.
I would take the current cornerback room over both, the 2000 group was good but I wouldn’t take Chad Scott (as good as he was for a few seasons) and DeWayne Washington over Haden and Nelson and while Ike Taylor is the best corner in this post-Woodson discussion, the 2008 team didn’t have as good of a number 2 corner as the Steelers have now. Hopefully the 2020 Steelers cornerbacks can make me look good by ending the season with a Super Bowl win.
Here’s some film rooms that deal with the Steelers cornerbacks, if you want to look deeper.
The evolution of the Steelers secondary over the 2019 season
The personnel puzzle (compares the 4 cornerback’s styles)
The stars emerge (talks about Joe Haden)
Cleveland finds the holes in the Steelers defense (covers several cornerback weaknesses)
Closing out 2019 (Hilton, Sutton and Nelson get a lot of attention)