From 2004 to 2013 the Pittsburgh Steelers only had one season where they weren’t a top ten defense in yards per pass attempt, and were either first or second in half of those years, the only season they weren’t top ten was in 2006, when Ike Taylor was benched during the Super Bowl hangover season.
From Ike Taylor’s second season to his last as starter, the Pittsburgh Steelers were top ten in yards per pass attempt allowed. They fell to 29th in the NFL in 2014, Dick LeBeau’s last year with the Steelers.
They improved from there and in 2017 would rank 11th in yards per pass attempt, in 2018 they would rank 7th, in 2019 3rd and in 2020 2nd. The Steelers pass defense fell off in a huge way when Ike Taylor was done, and has bounced back and is now a top pass defense again.
In 2017 the Steelers signed Joe Haden, and added Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton to the team. In 2019 Steven Nelson joined the group and the Steelers spent two years as a top 3 pass defense with those 4 as the primary corners. When all 4 were healthy, they were the best 4 deep group of cornerbacks in the NFL.
How can the Steelers continue to have one of the best cornerback groups in the NFL?
Let’s look at who is returning first.
Joe Haden: Joe Haden was released by the Browns because they thought he wasn’t able to be a #1 corner in the NFL anymore. 4 years later he’s the #1 corner on one of the best pass defenses in the NFL. Joe Haden isn’t an elite athlete, he wasn’t when he was drafted and he has lost a half a step since then. But he makes up for it with his intelligence, his incredible technique, and what I like to call “old man savvy.” Joe Haden knows a ton of tricks to win in the NFL, and one of my favorite things to watch is when young, elite athletes at wide receiver get matched up with Joe Haden, and they just can’t seem to get past him.
Since Terryl Austin and Minkah Fitzpatrick joined the team in 2019, the defensive back responsibilities have changed a bit, and Joe Haden has excelled, recording 7 interceptions and 29 pass defenses. If you look at the gamelogs you can shorten it to a 22 game stretch starting in week 9 of 2019. Haden has 7 interceptions and 25 pass defenses in his last 22 games. He had 36 passes defensed and 6 interceptions in his previous 52 games. That’s an incredible turnaround, and Joe Haden’s value is higher now than it has been since he was 25 back in 2014.
Steven Nelson: Nelson was widely reported as giving up the most passing yards of any cornerback in 2018 when he was playing with the Kansas City Chiefs. Not a great thing to have on your name entering free agency. The Steelers signed him anyway, and Nelson has locked down half the field since. In 2020 the Steelers gave up the 2nd fewest pass attempts and yards per pass attempt to the left side of the field of any team in the NFL.
The lesson from Nelson and Joe Haden is situation matters. The Steelers did a great job in 2019 developing a defense that would let their players play to their strengths, and found creative ways to use those strengths to cover other players’ weaknesses. With help where they can best use it, and their strengths helping other players play to their best usage, Nelson and Haden, along with the other defensive backs, have led the Steelers return to a top 3 pass defense.
Justin Layne: The Steelers 2019 third round pick was considered a project coming out of college, but also a steal at #83 overall. As a rookie he did not play on defense at all, spending time on special teams in 10 games. In 2020 he played 90 snaps, and Pro Football Reference has him giving up 127 yards and a TD on 12 targets in those 90 defensive snaps. In week 17 the Steelers played James Pierre in the second half instead of Justin Layne and Layne did not play on defense at all in the Wild card loss to Cleveland, as all the dime CB snaps went to James Pierre. Justin Layne is still young, and it is important to note that he was a more raw prospect coming out of college and that 2021 will be his age 23 season, when a lot of talented players put it together.
James Pierre: Pierre was the only undrafted rookie to make the Steelers roster in 2020. But he wasn’t content just to make the roster, Pierre played in every game as a rookie, playing almost half the special teams snaps, recording 10 tackles. He played 27 snaps on defense in the regular season, and 8 more in the Steelers playoff loss, where he gave up no receptions and the only time he was targeted he broke up a third down pass to force the Browns to punt, the first drive they didn’t score a touchdown on. At the end of 2020 Pierre appeared to have moved in front of Justin Layne for the #5 corner spot.
That’s it for cornerbacks under contract that played for the Steelers in 2020. Two guys that have not established themselves as NFL corners, let alone nickel back, a major role in the current era of football.
The Other Guys
Trevor Williams: Williams signed a futures contract with the Steelers after they signed him to their practice squad a few days before the Wild Card game. Williams isn’t your usual practice squad/futures contract player though, he’s 27 and was a starter for the Chargers in 2017. PFF graded him as the tenth best CB in the NFL that season. He was a part of the Chargers secondary that was constantly suffering injuries, and had his share of them. He was a starter in 2018 before a knee injury sidelined him. He spent time in 2019 on injured reserve, and in 2020 he did again.
He was a valuable player in 2017, but since then he has been on injured reserve each year with different injuries.
Stephen Denmark: Denmark was a 7th round draft pick for the Chicago Bears in 2019, he was a wide receiver for Valdosta State for three seasons before moving to cornerback in 2018, starting for the NCAA division II champion defense. Denmark showed good athleticism at his pro day, and an athletic 6’3” cornerback is the kind of player that gets a lot of chances. He’s been cut by the Bears and the Browns, and for now is a Pittsburgh Steeler.
You can see that while the Steelers have a top starting duo in place, the depth behind them is unproven and questionable in ability to fill the roles Cameron Sutton and Mike Hilton filled.
Free Agent Options
The Steelers could easily count on a competition between James Pierre, Justin Layne and the camp players they bring in for the offseason to come up with a dime and the #5 cornerback, but they need a #3 corner to play nickel and backup the starters.
So who could the Steelers bring in as their #3 corner?
Mike Hilton: The Steelers have been looking for a long time for players that can cover in the slot, blitz and play the run. They tried using Shamarko Thomas in the slot, drafted Sean Davis and Terrell Edmunds who both had that potential, drafted Anthony Brooks Jr. in 2020, and even Minkah Fitzpatrick played a DB/LB hybrid role for Nick Saban in college. The Steelers value that slot linebacker role, and yet for all their effort, only Mike Hilton has really thrived there. He makes a lot of sense for the Steelers to bring back, but that doesn’t mean they will be able to. There aren’t a lot of teams that use their slot corners like the Steelers, but it only takes one to drive the price up.
Cameron Sutton: On the opposite side of the spectrum is Sutton, who coming out of college was amazing in coverage, but looked like he struggled with all of the more physical aspects of the game, including physical receivers in their routes. In the NFL he has carved out a role in dime as an extremely versatile defender who is fantastic in deep defense. While he has improved a lot in tackling and handling physicality in routes, he offers nothing at all as a blitzer and is not good in run support. If he is re-signed to be the Steelers nickelback, the defense will not be able to use him like it did Mike Hilton.
K’Waun Williams: The former Pitt Panther is a free agent coming off a knee injury, and should be a cheap option. When healthy Williams has been solid in coverage and has recorded a sack in 5 of his 6 seasons. He played with Joe Haden in Cleveland before the Browns tried to suspend him for not playing in a preseason game when he had bone spurs that required surgery to fix. After recovering from surgery he joined the 49ers as their nickel back, where he recorded 3 sacks, 2 interceptions, 7 tackles for a loss, 6 QB hits and 5 forced fumbles in 23 games the last two seasons.
Jourdan Lewis: Lewis doesn’t have good coverage numbers from advanced stats, but he does have 6 sacks, 11 tackles for a loss, 2 interceptions and 8 passes defended the last two seasons. His 2020 season was bad, he was forced into playing outside due to injuries and it didn’t go well. If the Steelers think he would work well in Mike Hilton’s role they could get him for a lot less than Mike Hilton.
William Jackson III: The Steelers liked Jackson in 2016, but the Bengals drafted him 1 pick before the Steelers, Jackson played for Terryl Austin in 2018 and the Steelers have seen plenty of him over the years. While likely a more expensive option than most on this list, if the Steelers were to invest more in the position, Jackson fits the profile.
Patrick Surtain II would be a perfect fit for the Steelers nickel back, and would be in line to replace Joe Haden in a few years. Sadly he’s not going to be there when the Steelers pick at 24, but If you wanted a top player profile that fits the Steelers slot corner, he’s the guy.
Don’t expect a higher pick here, I would not be surprised to see the Steelers take another shot at a safety that plays in the slot a lot, like Jevon Holland who sat out in 2020 and could fall deeper in the draft because of it, or Ar’Darius Washington, a 5’8” safety from TCU who showed nickel ability and is likely to fall much farther in the draft than his talent warrants solely on height issues.