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Cameron Sutton 2021 Steelers Preview, Part 2: Starting in place of Steven Nelson

Cameron Sutton has already filled in for Steven Nelson once, could he do the job full time in 2021?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

In part one of this film room we looked at Cameron Sutton filling in for Mike Hilton as the nickelback, and there was a lot of bad in that film room. That’s what you get when you plug a player into a position designed around someone very different than him.

We’re going to explore that idea more in this film room, but focusing on how Cameron Sutton is a similar player to Steven Nelson, even if he wasn’t as good as Nelson.

1st quarter, 6:54. Cameron Sutton is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.

Sutton isn’t a physical player, that isn’t his strength, so this bail-at-the-snap coverage is one he uses a lot. This is a run play, but I needed to show this because of the next play.

Week 13, 1st quarter, 6:16. Cameron Sutton is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.

Alex Smith sees Sutton is bailing at the snap and they try to take advantage of him dropping deep, but Sutton recovers and makes them pay for it with a pass defense. The Football Team would probably have had more success with a shorter route and a quicker throw, but that doesn’t take away from Sutton’s work on this play.

4th quarter, 10:45. Cameron Sutton is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

Here is Sutton showing his strength, covering deep routes. Sutton stays with receivers really well on these routes, and plays the ball well.

4th quarter, 9:14. Cameron Sutton is the cornerback to the top of the screen

Here Sutton is matched up with Terry McLaurin, and he does a great job sticking to him through a tough route to cover. Cameron Sutton changes direction fluidly and stays right on McLaurin’s hip.

4th quarter, 3:10. Cameron Sutton is the second corner from the top of the screen.

And then there is this play. Now every corner gets beat, but this tough catch is set up by one of Sutton’s consistent weaknesses. Watch this route replay and look for the moment the receiver gains separation.

Sutton is right with his man until he turns to find the ball, and at that point the receiver’s arm creates distance. Sutton has improved a lot in his ability to defend physical routes, but when he’s turning his head, or changing direction, it still shows up and here it creates just enough room for a tough one-handed catch. Sutton is going to struggle more when he faces receivers that are good at establishing their route and positioning with physicality. It’s not a glaring weakness like it was for him in college, but it is still there.

That is Cameron Sutton in man coverage, he does a great job sticking to his man, is really strong in deep coverage, but vulnerable to physical receivers.

The Steelers are a man-heavy team now, but they run a lot of complex man/zone hybrid coverages as well. These coverages make it easier for a defender to cover their man, since they pick them up after the receiver commits to his route, but they also require reading the play and making the right choices based on what they see.

1st quarter, 12:36. Cameron Sutton is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.

Sutton navigates this switch easily, taking the deeper route instead of just covering the outside receiver. It’s what you want to see. Watch Edmunds and Sutton pre-snap below.

You can see Edmunds talking as he gets into position, and Sutton communicating back. Sutton hasn’t filled this role a lot, and that communication is key to making sure everyone is on the same page.

2nd quarter, 10:33. Cameron Sutton is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

In a typical situation for that side of the field, Edmunds comes up and covers short while Sutton drops deep. Cameron Sutton can plug into this play for Steven Nelson and be fine.

3rd quarter, 9:36. Cameron Sutton is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

This should remind you of the Broncos game in week 2, when the Steelers gave up big plays to the Broncos tight end Noah Fant because there was some confusion over whether the out route qualifies as a “quick out” or not. It’s an attack on the pattern matching and it works here, the out route skirts the line between being Terrell Edmunds and Cameron Sutton’s responsibility. While that problem was solved after week 2, Steven Nelson was running that, not Sutton, and he momentarily makes the wrong decision. He recovers and is nearly able to get into position to make a play on the ball.

It is heartening to see that kind of recovery, with more experience in the position Sutton should be solid outside.

In the 4th quarter Joe Haden left the game with an injury, and the Steelers moved Sutton across the field to play in Haden’s place. Earlier I showed some clips of Sutton doing fine in man coverage on Haden’s side, the physical side of the defense he is on doesn’t matter. His role and responsibilities do matter.

4th quarter, 10:39. Cameron Sutton is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

The pattern-matching zone follows different rules on Joe Haden’s side. Sutton is in Joe Haden’s role, not Steven Nelson’s, and you can see Terrell Edmunds dropping deep, that’s his job. Haden covers the route farthest outside, while the linebacker has anything going inside. Sutton plays it like he’s still playing for Steven Nelson, taking the first deep route, and it’s 16 free yards.

4th quarter, 9:48. Cameron Sutton is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

This time motion causes problems. Sutton should be covering the farthest receiver outside, but he is taking the deep route and it leaves Avery Williamson trying to cover 3 players by himself. I don’t like this formation (3-4 with Hilton at SS instead of Edmunds) and I don’t like the lack of physical movement to adjust to the formation unbalancing. 6 on 5 in zone doesn’t work when three defenders are covering one receiver.

If Sutton is out by the sideline Minkah Fitzpatrick is going to still have a hard time on that route up the numbers and you still end up with the receiver crossing the middle open for a first down. The failure to communicate to Cameron Sutton just changes who we blame, but it is important to point out the communication problems the Steelers had with Sutton in, especially in contrast to the play earlier when Edmunds was able to communicate with Sutton and make sure they were on the right page. We can take this with a little salt, because it was the first drive Cameron Sutton was in covering for Joe Haden, but you can see the problems it caused.

4th quarter, 2:11. Cameron Sutton is the cornerback farthest to the top of the screen.

The Steelers solved it in the next drive, by running Sutton’s pattern matching like Nelson’s side, instead of Haden’s side. Sutton takes the first deep route, Edmunds covers the out route and breaks up the pass.

The Steelers signed Cameron Sutton for two years and $9 million, but with void years his cap hit is 1.7 million in 2021. Cutting Steven Nelson saves 8 million on the 2021 salary cap, replacing Nelson with Sutton saves the Steelers $6.3 million in cap space, a significant amount to a team that needs to clear cap space just to sign its rookie class.

Cameron Sutton is not as good as Steven Nelson. Steven Nelson is better in run support and is better dealing with physical receivers. But Cameron Sutton’s skill set fits the position the Steelers carved out for Steven Nelson, and the drop off should not be huge. I also would not be surprised to see the Steelers draft a cornerback and end up with Sutton starting only to give way and slide into the nickel during the season. I wouldn’t be surprised if Justin Layne or James Pierre had a great camp and won the outside corner role. It won’t be easy, Cameron Sutton is already a good outside corner, but he isn’t on Joe Haden or Steven Nelson’s level either.