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How James Pierre defied the odds to make the Steelers’ roster

Taking a look at the Pittsburgh Steelers newest cornerback.

NFL: Combine Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

James Pierre committed to play football at the University of Miami (Florida) before his Junior year of High School ended. The safety out of Deerfield Beach had been a lifelong Hurricanes fan and signed a commitment the same day they offered it. A year later though, the Huricanes had fired coach Al Golden, and James Pierre de-committed. He was offered a scholarship to North Carolina, signed to play there, but the school denied him admission. Syracuse was next, he signed, they admitted him but the NCAA ruled Pierre ineligible.

Pierre wouldn’t play NCAA football in 2016, but joined Florida Atlantic in 2017 as a true freshman, having satisfied the NCAA and gaining eligibility. It’s a long way to fall from being a high school standout with a scholarship to play for the Miami Hurricanes to joining Florida Atlantic a year behind the rest of your class. His first season he played special teams, and over the course of the season earned playing time at safety. Part way into his sophomore season he would get the chance to start at cornerback, and he didn’t look back, starting 22 games in his sophomore and junior year, and earning honorable mention recognition in Conference USA.

Pierre left school early, but at the same age he would have if his freshman season hadn’t been delayed. He was touted as a day three draft pick but fell out of the draft entirely, signing with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent.

Again James Pierre faced a disappointment that threatened to derail his career before it got started, but even facing the daunting task of making the team from the bottom of the pecking order in a season with no preseason games, Pierre would persevere, and is currently one of 53 players on the Steelers 2020 roster, the only non-drafted rookie to make the team.

No preseason games and a largely closed camp also means we haven’t had a chance to see him play at all. So I thought it might be good to take a look at the last football game he played, the 2019 Boca Raton Bowl.


Defending passes downfield

James Pierre isn’t a particularly athletic defensive back, his combine performance was disappointing, he ran a 4.59 forty, and when you add that to his 33.5 vertical jump you get a 24th percentile SPARQ score. That’s how a player thought worthy of an early day three pick ends up undrafted. Does his athletic limitations affect his ability to cover?

James Pierre is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

James Pierre is shadowing the receiver with inside leverage. Just from his stance before the snap we know his job on this play is to keep the receiver from getting inside of him and drive any route into the sideline. Seeing this the offense counters with a fade. The quarterback throws the ball as soon as Pierre bites on the inside release fake, but Pierre is able to recover, read the receivers eyes and get his hand in the way. Good coverage.

James Pierre is the slot defender to the bottom of the screen.

Pierre does well here, staying with the receiver and in contact with him, limiting the quarterback to a very small window to fit this pass in. Pierre isn’t the faster corner, but he isn’t going to get beat by just anyone.

James Pierre is the cornerback to the top of the screen

When you have someone thinking they are defending a deep route, this is usually a great route to run. James Pierre is able to stay with the receiver and defend the pass.

James Pierre is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

Here Pierre executes a switch, passing off his receiver to the safety and taking the outside route. He starts with outside leverage, forcing his receiver to the inside where he has help, but notice as he switches he defends with inside leverage, driving the sideline route into the boundary. This is a well executed play, and the quarterback smartly finds somewhere else to throw the ball.

Pierre isn’t going to win with speed, but he plays smart and that made him a solid cover corner on downfield routes.


Defending the short passing game

James Pierre is even better when he’s not dealing with deep routes, where his intelligence and size are more important than his straight line speed.

James Pierre is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

This play goes to the other side, but I love Pierre’s defense on this play. He gets hands on the receiver at the snap, and as the receiver tries to win an outside release, Pierre boxes him out, driving him into the sideline, while buying a chance to look at the quarterback. Reminds me a lot of Joe Haden in his execution on this play.

James Pierre is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

Again the ball doesn’t come his way, but this clip does a good job of showing his hips at the break in the route. His turn to follow the slant is quick and fluid. That's what you want to see.

James Pierre is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

The very next pay SMU thinks it would be smart to throw against Pierre. It would take a perfect throw and a tough catch to beat this coverage. Pierre stays with the route easily and times up his challenge to notch a defended pass.

James Pierre is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

Here the offense tries to take Pierre out of the play with a shove from the tight end, but Pierre recovers well and is there to convince the quarterback that the grass is a better target.

James Pierre is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

Another physical route defended well. A little push of at the stem of the route buys the receiver space, but Pierre recovers and is able to make the tackle. There is some sloppiness in his footwork showing up here, and it makes the tackle harder that it needed to be. which brings us to the end of the good plays and into the next section.


Technique issues

James Pierre has more than just sub-average athleticism against him, he also needs to work on his technique. Just like most rookies do.

James Pierre is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

I’ve seen far worse footwork from a cornerback, But you can see how much he moves to cover not much ground. Pierre’s footwork isn’t terrible, but it isn’t even close to good for the NFL.

James Pierre is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

Here you see his happy feet even more, and it gets him a missed tackle. He will hop at times in his movements, something that should get ironed out quickly under NFL coaching.

James Pierre is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

Again Pierre has poor technique approaching a tackle, this time his tackle attempt is easily broken.

James Pierre came to the Steelers with a lot of areas needing polish in his game, but the fact that he is on the 53 man roster tells us that the Steelers are impressed with his progress.


Where does he fit?

James Pierre has a lot of good traits, and he shows areas he needs to improve. He wasn’t a play maker in college, only recording 3 interceptions in his career, but he also turned into a corner that opposing teams largely avoided.

Coming out of college his best fit was in a cover-2 style cornerback position, where his intelligence and size are more of a benefit and his speed less of a hindrance. He also seems to be solid in deep zone assignments although it is much harder to gauge that without all-22 film. In man defense he will need help over top, as faster receivers will be able to cause him trouble.

I expect the Steelers to give him as much of a red-shirt season as the health of his team mates allows him. He could develop into a good defender for the Steelers, and could potentially fit similar roles to what Mike Hilton, Joe Haden or Cameron Sutton play, depending on how he develops. He isn’t likely to be a big part of the defense this season, but if called into action he should be a serviceable defender, and he played special teams in college, so he could fill in there if injury strikes. Odds aren’t great that he will turn into even a valuable depth defender for the Steelers, but James Pierre has faced long odds and setbacks before, I wouldn’t bet against him.