The Steelers have seen some big changes in their cornerback room since the end of the 2020 season. With the departures of Mike Hilton and Steven Nelson, it appears as if Joe Haden and Cameron Sutton will begin training camp as the two starters on the outside. Of course, the 2021 NFL draft could change things, but for now we can only look at the players on the roster.
It is believed that Cam Sutton would play on the outside in the Steelers base defense, but slide in to take the slot corner responisiblites when the Steelers go into their subpackage defense. If this is indeed the case, the Steelers currently have options of Justin Layne and James Pierre to fill the spot on the outside.
The big question is which player, Layne or Pierre, will get the call for playing time in the Steelers defense. It’s such a good question, it has been chosen as the topic for this week’s Steelers Vertex.
Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.
Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.
Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.
Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.
The Stats Line:
When looking at the stats for both Justin Layne in James Pierre, there’s not a ton to go by. Layne did not see the field on defense as a rookie in 2019, which wasn’t a bad thing. For this exercise, I’m going to stick to strictly 2020 regular season and postseason numbers on defense as special teams is a whole different issue.
Justin Layne played 117 snaps on defense in 2020, all of which were during the regular season. The game played with the most snaps was the loss to the Washington Football Team where he played 28 snaps and was targeted for times for four completions and 25 yards along with a touchdown according to Pro Football Reference. On the season, Layne was targeted 12 times and gave up 10 completions for 127 yards and the one touchdown against Washington. Layne was the only Steelers corner not credited with a pass defensed in 2020.
As for James Pierre, he played 27 defensive snaps during the regular season and additional eight in the postseason. The most snaps Pierre saw on defense was in Week 17 against the Cleveland Browns where he played 18 snaps and was not targeted. On the season, including the playoffs, Pierre was only targeted twice with one completion for -1 yards. Pierre also had a pass defensed on his lone target in the postseason.
One of the biggest numbers when it comes to comparing these two corners is looking at the snaps played as the season went on. After pretty much splitting time in Week 17 were Pierre saw 18 snaps and Layne had 16 snaps on defense, it was Pierre who was called into action in the postseason with eight snaps while Layne was not on the field on defense. Like my coach used to say, it’s not who starts but who finishes.
As for their salaries, both players are on rookie deals and have minimal effect to the Steelers salary cap. In fact, once the Steelers sign their 2021 draft class, James Pierre’s contract won’t even fall in the top 51 for the team.
So now that we know how the numbers played out, what does the film show between these two cornerbacks?
The Film Line:
Justin Layne started the season as the #5 cornerback after the team let Artie Burns leave in free agency. He stayed in that role for most of the season. The only time he didn’t seem to be the Steelers #5 cornerback was in the second half of Week 17 and in the Wild Card game, both against the Cleveland Browns. While Justin Layne had good and bad plays throughout the season, we are going to focus on that Week 17 matchup to see if it shows why the Steelers went with James Pierre over Justin Layne in the playoffs, and what it shows for the competition between the two this season.
Week 17, 2nd quarter, 13:21. Justin Layne is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.
Justin Layne loses track of his receiver on the double move, and it’s a 42-yard gain. I often talk about Minkah Fitzpatrick not being a true cover-1 safety, but man, look at the ground he covers to keep this from being a touchdown. Justin Layne and Cameron Sutton had problems with busted plays to their side earlier in the season, and it shows up again with no one else to blame.
Week 17, 2nd quarter, 0:05. Justin Layne is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.
I wanted to show this one because he plays this double move almost the exact same way, but with help behind him it’s not a bad play. It’s possible the 42-yard gain he gave up earlier in the 2nd quarter was a miscommunication.
Layne didn’t have a terrible day in Week 17, he only gave up the one completion, but giving up a 42-yard pass on a blown coverage is the kind of Artie Burns flashback no one wants.
Contrary to what I’ve heard stated multiple times since the season ended, the Steelers didn’t just play Layne in the first half and Pierre in the second half. In the third quarter the Steelers played Marcus Allen at linebacker and at nickelback, bypassing Layne in nickel, and then when Allen was hurt, the Steelers played both Layne and Pierre on dime plays. The Steelers rested more and more players as the game went on, and in the 4th quarter Cameron Sutton and James Pierre were the corners when the Steelers went with a 7-man front.
Week 17, 4th quarter, 10:02. James Pierre is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.
James Pierre does a really good job closing on this route, and if you look at when Baker Mayfield releases the ball, Pierre would have arrived in time to have a shot at defending a pass to his side. Baker Mayfield wisely went after Marcus Allen on this play, leaving Pierre alone.
Week 17, 4th quarter, 8:42. James Pierre (#42) is the cornerback to the right side of the screen.
I love this play. Pierre supports Alex Highsmith really well here. He starts off with good position as Highsmith holds his block, staying behind himwhere he can attack the gaps to either side of Hisghmith. When Highsmith sheds the block by putting the blocker to the inside of the play, Pierre shifts focus to that inside lane, and then swaps places again, putting his body into Highsmith’s discarded blocker to cover a cut outside, before finally engaging to be a part of the tackle.
I went through all that to show just how much Pierre was processing on that run play. James Pierre is a smart and aggressive run defender, while we can talk about willingness to tackle with other defensive backs, Pierre is closer to a Joe Haden in his commitment to defending the run, and that matters a lot to the Steelers coaching staff.
I’m not trying to go out of my way to pick on Justin Layne, and he never played in the Steelers 7-man front sets, but here’s Justin Layne taking on a running back in the open field.
Week 13, 2nd quarter, 0:35. Justin Layne is the cornerback to the top of the screen.
This isn’t apples to apples at all, but seriously, that tackle is high and if the back isn’t trying to get out of bounds, ripe for getting broken. Layne recorded 22 tackles with 5 missed tackles (18.5%!) in 2020, while James Pierre recorded 10 tackles with 0 missed. Small sample sizes, but even in small sample sizes numbers can show significant trends, and in this case the film backs it up. Tackling and run defense is a strength for James Pierre, and while there is no film of Justin Layne in a 7-man front set, his tackling doesn’t look good for his run defense.
Week 17, 4th quarter, 8:03. James Pierre is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.
And then there is this play.
The Steelers struggled more with miscommunication and missed assignments as starters went down on defense and backups were communicating with backups. But on this play? James Pierre switches receivers smoothly with Marcus Allen and while Minkah Fitzpatrick early on is committed to bailing out the undrafted rookie if he loses his man, Pierre sees the play extending and alters his technique, facing his man and keeping him uninvolved in the extended play.
Plays like this one really stand out for a rookie, especially one getting snaps on defense for the first time in the NFL. That makes it easy to understand why the Steelers chose to play James Pierre over Justin Layne in the playoffs. Where Pierre would make this play:
Wild Card game, 2nd quarter, 11:31.
Before that third down pass defense, the Browns had converted every third down and had scored a touchdown on each of their drives. They would punt for the first time on the next play. He played really well on every snap he played in that playoff game, and Baker Mayfield didn’t target him again.
Justin Layne had good and bad film, but mostly he showed a player that struggled with more complex assignments, losing players on double moves, miss reading switches and reacting late in zone.
Meanwhile James Pierre showed great technique in all areas of the game, and executed the defense at a much higher level than you would expect from even a high draft pick rookie.
Admittedly we are looking at a very small sample size with James Pierre, but in that sample size he looked more like a starting corner than a number 4 corner. And even though fans saw a small sample size, the Steelers have a much better idea of Pierre’s ability and have demonstrated the confidence in him as well. It’s difficult to believe he is behind Justin Layne on the depth chart right now, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he ended up pushing Cameron Sutton for the starting cornerback job. Both Layne and Pierre will get an opportunity in training camp, and Justin Layne may even get the first crack at things being a third-round draft pick, but James Pierre has already put on tape what he can do with his limited opportunities. Chances are, barring injury to either player, Pierre gets the snaps played advantage over Layne in 2021.