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Cameron Sutton 2021 Steelers Preview, Part 1: Filling in as the Nickel DB

Cameron Sutton will be the Steelers #2 or #3 corner, what does that mean for the defense?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

The Steelers signed Cameron Sutton to a 2-year deal, and Mike Hilton signed with the Cincinnati Bengals. When I first heard the news I started working on this film room, looking at the Steelers nickel defense and how it would have to change if Cameron Sutton was the nickelback. Then the Steelers gave Steven Nelson permission to seek a trade, and there are rumors all around that situation, saying the Steelers are planning to cut him if he doesn’t find a trade, or that Nelson wants out because he wants more money, as of the time I’m writing this it is all speculation.

What is relevant is the Steelers have Cameron Sutton and he will either be playing where Steven Nelson played in 2020 or where Mike Hilton played in 2020. He played both of those positions in 2020, when Hilton missed games in the middle of the season, and in week 13 when Nelson was out.

For this first part of the film room we will look at Cameron Sutton in the nickel, where he spent a good amount of time as Mike Hilton missed 4 games.

Nickelback: The Slot Linebacker

Mike Hilton is a very physical back, he takes on blockers, reads the run well, is an aggressive and solid tackler and Hilton is a smart and talented blitzer. That’s not Cameron Sutton’s skillset.

Week 8, 2nd quarter, 2:34. Cameron Sutton is the slot corner to the bottom of the screen (moves with the motion)

On this play Cameron Sutton fails reading this play and the blocking. He heads outside, giving the running back a cutback lane straight up the middle of the field. Take a look at the moment he decides to head outside.

Bud Dupree’s blocker is taking a blow from Cameron Heyward, Heyward’s blocker is to the inside of the play, Heyward’s outside arm is completely free. There is nowhere to go to that side, but Sutton follows behind them, essentially backing them up in case the running back somehow runs that way and straight through both of them. The middle of the line is open, the blockers and runner are heading away from Sutton and he puts himself even farther away from the run. Not a good decision there.

The importance of run defense as a nickel corner can be seen clearly in this image. Look at Sutton and the two linebackers, they are lined up like linebackers in a 4-3 formation. And that’s what a 4-2 Nickel really is, it is 4-3 but with a DB playing outside linebacker. It looks the same when a 4-3 team moves a linebacker out to cover a slot receiver (imagine a TE motioning from in-line to the slot with a LB following him).

Sutton is playing linebacker, and he misses his read and it allows a good gain on a play that was otherwise shut down. It’s a problem that shows up when he plays in different roles as well.

Week 13, 3rd quarter, 13:27. Cameron Sutton is in the middle of the field, drops deep at the snap.

On this play Sutton is playing deep zone, but as the play comes to him, he misreads the flow of the play and again takes himself out of position to help. Look at the crucial seconds in slow motion.

Again Sutton follows the numbers for his defense, instead of helping fill the lane that is opening up, and a turn away from the runner leaves him completely out of the action.

This looks pretty bad, almost like he’s intentionally avoiding contact, but when the read is easier, he is a willing combatant.

Week 7, 1st quarter, 5:10. Cameron Sutton is lined up right behind T.J. Watt to the right side of the screen.

Again, notice the 4-3 look to the alignment, This time Sutton’s man loops inside and Sutton meets him in the hole. He’s willing, he’s just not very good at it. Sutton takes on Adam Humphries (#10) well here, but when you look at Mike Hilton taking on offensive lineman and beating tight ends in run defense, stalemating a 195 lb. receiver doesn’t hit the same.

The Ravens identified Sutton as a weak link in run defense in week 8, and started running at him. The Steelers solution in the first half was to move him to safety and move Minkah Fitzpatrick or Terrell Edmunds up into the slot. Sutton plays deep zone in dime a good bit, so it seems like a good idea. But the Steelers do a lot more than deep zone with their safeties, and it became clear pretty quickly that with Sutton at safety the Steelers weren’t able to rotate their safeties and adapt to motion and different formations the same.

Week 8, 1st quarter, 8:48. Cameron Sutton is the safety on the hashmarks to the bottom of the screen.

Vince Williams in the slot covering Myles Boykin isn’t good. On the other side of the field Cameron Sutton is lined up as a safety and covering the running back. That’s awful. How did they get to that point? It was easy.

The Steelers have good matchups when the teams initially line up, but when Marquis Brown motions across the formation it wrecks everything. You have to wonder how the Steelers can be a top defense when a simple motion puts Vince Williams in man on a wide receiver with no real help.

The answer isn’t hard either, Terrell Edmunds and Mike Hilton communicate the adaptations on these plays. But here, Edmunds is blitzing and Sutton is at safety. Only Steven Nelson and Williams move very much at all with the motion and the mismatch is achieved. They don’t have an adjustment call ready because the players are out of position to start the play. If Hilton was in and Edmunds was playing safety this is likely handled right, they did it a lot during the season, just not here.

In the second half of week 8 the Steelers didn’t run nickel. They played their 3-4 defense against 11 personnel and switched directly between 3-4 and dime, skipping right over nickel almost every time. The Ravens went from scoring 17 points in the first half to scoring 7 in the second half, and the Steelers came back to win the game.

That was against the Ravens, when any weakness in run defense or communication is going to be a huge problem. The drop-off in run defense was a problem, but Sutton showed some other example of how playing in dime covered his weaknesses.

Sutton in Coverage

Week 7, 4th quarter, 2:35. Cameron Sutton is the slot corner to the top of the screen.

This defense from week 7 shows Sutton backing up, and taking too long to reverse direction and close on A.J. Brown. Sutton is used to playing in Dime, when giving up yards short of the sticks is often okay, the real important task is to not get beat deep. But this is first down, and 9 yards on first down really hurts.

Week 9, 1st quarter, 9:33. Cameron Sutton is the slot corner to the bottom of the screen.

Here’s another example of a poor adjustment to the situation. Cameron Sutton on 3rd and 2 takes strong inside leverage facing Amari Cooper. Cooper sees that leverage and eats it for breakfast, and the Cowboys get a 32 yard gain. One of Cameron Sutton’s weaknesses is taking on top receivers in man, not an issue when you are playing deep zone in dime, but when you are the nickel corner or starting outside you have to play better against the bigger names. On earlier downs the Steelers are more likely to put their corners on an island.

It also stands out to me that this look usually draws a pattern match zone from the Steelers with Steven Nelson dropping deep and Mike Hilton jumping the underneath route. The Steelers with Sutton and Nelson play it straight up, and this is the result.

It isn’t all bad, these are examples of his weaknesses, things the Steelers will have to account for or fix before Sutton takes over on the field. And sometimes Sutton makes plays even when he appears to be beaten.

Week 9, 2nd quarter, 1:03. Cameron Sutton is the slot defender to the top of the screen.

Cameron Sutton loses the moment of contact to CeeDee Lamb, and Lamb is open to make the catch. Sutton recovers and strips the ball, turning a bad play into a splash play.

Sutton is a solid defensive back, but there are weaknesses in his game that weren’t a problem in dime that will need to be improved or covered for when he’s playing more.

Cameron Sutton did record a sack and a tackle for a loss in 2020, and I’ve stated that he brings no value to blitzing, so I thought it would be important to show the plays he recorded in the opponent’s backfield.

Week 6, 2nd quarter, 1:14. Cameron Sutton starts the play lined up as the safety to the top of the screen.

That’s Cameron Sutton sacking Baker Mayfield. Mayfield ran out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage, and Cameron Sutton was the defensive player closest to him when he did.

Week 10, 1st quarter, 4:09. Cameron Sutton is the second defensive back from the bottom.

A decent job reading the play and moving up (don’t like that hesitation), and when the back catches the ball but falls down Sutton is there to tap him down for a loss on the play.

So while he did record two negative yardage plays, they were not forced by him, he capitalized on opportunities.

As a nickelback, Cameron Sutton does not at all fill the Mike Hilton role of slot linebacker, he never will. That puts stress on the linebackers or safeties to cover for him in the run game. We saw the Steelers try to do that by just switching Sutton and a safety, but that isn’t a good option.

In my opinion, the best response to Sutton playing nickel is to get a more athletic inside linebacker to pair with Devin Bush. In 2020 the safeties provided deep help to Mike Hilton, while Devin Bush helped cover for Vince Williams in coverage. In 2021, with Sutton at nickel, the Steelers would be smart to let Minkah Fitzpatrick move around and be more free to improvise, while having the linebackers carry more responsibility laterally, covering underneath for Cameron Sutton.