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What about Steelers Veterans? Part 3: Cornerbacks

What can last year’s defensive performances teach about the upcoming year

Pittsburgh Steelers v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

This is part 3 of a four part series, looking at the Steelers defensive performances from last year at several different points — from games 1 to 10 (when the Steelers were 10-0 and their defense was dominant), games 11 to 16 (during which the team fell to 2-4), and over the full season.

I compiled some individual stats during the extended postponement of the Thanksgiving contest aganst Baltimore, then again at the end of the year — looking especially at league rankings (using profootballreference.com as a guide). Then I did a little number crunching of my own and broke the lists down by conference and position.

Part 1: Inside Linebackers can be found HERE.
Part 2: Safeties can be found HERE
Soon will come analysis of pass rushers. But in this edition: cornerbacks.


This round: Cornerbacks

First, a quick peak at the overall stats allowed by the Steelers corners.

Games 1-10

Defenders Age G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp% Yds TD Int Rat YAC Cmb Tck MTkl
Defenders Age G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp% Yds TD Int Rat YAC Cmb Tck MTkl
Joe Haden 31 10 10 30 62 48.4% 404 2 1 73.6 57 42 6
Steven Nelson 27 10 10 40 67 59.7% 569 6 2 104.6 238 30 2
Mike Hilton 26 6 3 16 22 72.7% 180 1 1 93.0 64 30 5
Cameron Sutton 25 10 2 18 27 66.7% 177 1 1 81.9 54 21 1
Most categories are self explanatory. “Rat.” refers to the passer rating this defender allowed when he was targeted. “YAC” is the yardage allowed after the catch. “Cmb Tkl” is the player’s combined tackles (both solo and assists). And “MTkl” means missed tackles, as measured by Pro Football Reference.

Games 11-16

Defenders Age G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp% Yds TD Int Rat YAC Cmb Tck MTkl
Defenders Age G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp% Yds TD Int Rat YAC Cmb Tck MTkl
Joe Haden 31 4 4 10 17 58.8% 155 1 1 84.2 57 10 3
Steven Nelson 27 5 5 17 31 54.8% 163 1 0 80.4 80 18 2
Mike Hilton 26 6 3 13 23 56.5% 88 0 2 28.9 74 21 6
Cameron Sutton 25 6 4 16 29 55.2% 207 0 0 77.8 109 9 4

Full Season

Defenders Age G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp% Yds TD Int Rat YAC Cmb Tck MTkl
Defenders Age G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp% Yds TD Int Rat YAC Cmb Tck MTkl
Joe Haden 31 14 14 40 79 50.6% 559 3 2 75.9 114 52 9
Steven Nelson 27 15 15 57 98 58.2% 732 7 2 97.0 318 48 4
Mike Hilton 26 12 6 29 45 64.4% 268 1 3 60.2 138 51 11
Cameron Sutton 25 16 6 34 56 60.7% 384 1 1 79.8 163 30 5

We’ll break these stats down momentarily, but on a first glance we can say that this is a very mixed unit.

Two quick observations before we get into the weeds:

1 - Steven Nelson struggled mightily this past year.

2 - Cam Sutton and Joe Haden, this coming season’s presumptive starters, were the most consistent on the year. Fingers crossed that that holds true for this year too. I’m most interested in their performances, since they’ll be doing the heavy lifting in 2021.

Okay, let’s go.


Completion Percentage Allowed

Games 1-10

NFL all AFC all NFL CBs AFC CBs All defenders G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp%
NFL all AFC all NFL CBs AFC CBs All defenders G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp%
12 7 7 5 Joe Haden 10 10 30 62 48.4%
57 31 37 20 Steven Nelson 10 10 40 67 59.7%
168 87 87 47 Mike Hilton 6 3 16 22 72.7%
114 63 69 39 Cameron Sutton 10 2 18 27 66.7%
The rankings were all calculated by me, from Pro Football Reference data. In some cases, the player was tied for a certain ranking, though I didn’t indicate that here.

The first thing that jumps out to me is that, during the Steelers undefeated opening stretch, Joe Haden was outstanding. Haden was a Pro Bowler in 2019, and played at that level for the first three months of the 2020 season as well.

Steven Nelson, who took the majority of the wideouts on the opposite side, was a clear step down, but wasn’t terrible in this realm. I’m going to say more about Nelson in a moment, but for now, let’s admit that he was a serviceable CB2 — at least in completions allowed.

Hilton and Sutton got significantly less playing time — and consequently significantly fewer targets — so while their numbers were both unimpressive, I’m trying to put less gravity on these. But yeah, they don’t look great.

Games 11-16

NFL all AFC all NFL CBs AFC CBs All defenders G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp%
NFL all AFC all NFL CBs AFC CBs All defenders G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp%
- - - - Joe Haden 4 4 10 17 58.8%
- - - - Steven Nelson 5 5 17 31 54.8%
- - - - Mike Hilton 6 3 13 23 56.5%
- - - - Cameron Sutton 6 4 16 29 55.2%
I could isolate the numbers from games 11-16, but there was no way to calculate league rankings.

Good (and complicated) news in these last six weeks. The three players not named Joe Haden all improved a lot, and Haden himself didn’t slip much. In particular, Mike Hilton (who’s leaving town) and Cam Sutton (who’s staying) dramatically increased their playing time, and got better as they went.

Why is that complicated? Because the Steelers went 2-4 during this stretch.

I’m not sure what conclusions to draw from this, except that one position is hardly the key to the win/loss line. ILBs all stumbled in the final six weeks, and safeties did in some areas too. Maybe the Steelers covered downfield better as the season progressed, but slipped at defending the short passing game (and rushing D).

Full Season

NFL all AFC all NFL CBs AFC CBs All defenders G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp%
NFL all AFC all NFL CBs AFC CBs All defenders G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp%
6 5 4 4 Joe Haden 14 14 40 79 50.60%
42 28 31 21 Steven Nelson 15 15 57 98 58.20%
102 58 70 41 Mike Hilton 12 6 29 45 64.40%
60 39 44 28 Cameron Sutton 16 6 34 56 60.70%

When it comes to league/conference rankings, all four of the Steelers corners improved over the course of the year. That’s great.

Individually, Joe Haden is a damned star, still. His pick-6 against Baltimore was a highlight, but completion percentage allowed is one of those categories that doesn’t show up on Sportscenter, but is every bit as important.

Cam Sutton, 2021’s presumptive CB2, seemed to get better with the extra snaps. That’s also a very good sign.


Passer Rating Allowed

Games 1-10

NFL all AFC all NFL CBs AFC CBs All defenders G GS Tgt Rat
NFL all AFC all NFL CBs AFC CBs All defenders G GS Tgt Rat
40 18 21 9 Joe Haden 10 10 62 73.6
163 83 72 39 Steven Nelson 10 10 67 104.6
109 53 52 25 Mike Hilton 6 3 22 93.0
59 28 32 14 Cameron Sutton 10 2 27 81.9

So once again, Haden is the top player on this team, and highly respectable league-wide. Given his completion percentage allowed, this is not a big surprise.

Cam Sutton’s positioning, however, is a surprise. Passer rating allowed is not the end-all/be-all statistic, and Sutton got significantly fewer targets than most starters would, but it’s pretty shocking to see that he’s the 32nd ranked CB in the NFL. Theoretically, this suggests he ought to be the top CB2 in the league. (Of course that’s not how rankings work, but you can see the logic.) That’s pretty impressive.

Nelson, on the other hand, struggled. 104.6 rating allowed is a rough number. Given that there are 32 starting corners on the 16 AFC teams, Nelson’s #39 ranking (among qualified players) is a bad look.

Games 11-16

NFL all AFC all NFL CBs AFC CBs All defenders G GS Tgt Rat
NFL all AFC all NFL CBs AFC CBs All defenders G GS Tgt Rat
- - - - Joe Haden 4 4 17 84.2
- - - - Steven Nelson 5 5 31 80.4
- - - - Mike Hilton 6 3 23 28.9
- - - - Cameron Sutton 6 4 29 77.8

Just like the completion percentage, individual QBRs generally improved in the final six weeks. Nelson, Haden, and Sutton are roughly equal in this category — though quarterbacks were clearly throwing away from Haden. But Hilton improved dramatically.

I thought perhaps this was a function of opponents running more late in the year, meaning there would be fewer passes to defend. But Steelers CBs were targeted 19.3 times per game in the first ten ballgames, and 19.1 times per game in the final six weeks. It seems these guys just got their acts together.

Full Season

NFL all AFC all NFL CBs AFC CBs All defenders G GS Tgt Rat
NFL all AFC all NFL CBs AFC CBs All defenders G GS Tgt Rat
34 17 15 9 Joe Haden 14 14 79 75.9
138 67 68 37 Steven Nelson 15 15 98 97
10 7 5 5 Mike Hilton 12 6 45 60.2
46 26 23 15 Cameron Sutton 16 6 56 79.8

Overall, Haden was consistently strong (get used to that). Sutton looks like a starter on the long haul as well. Hilton, meanwhile, improved a ton in the final six weeks, once he returned from injury. The Steelers will miss him this season quite a bit.

That’s three Steelers corners in the top 25 of the NFL. Wow. These guys were a force.

And then there’s Nelson. Maybe now is a good time to look at him a tiny bit closer, to perhaps unpack why he was expendable this season, and why none of us saw it coming.


Quick Digression: Let’s Talk About Steven Nelson

Steven Nelson

Year G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp% Yds YPA TD Int Rat YAC Cmb Tck MTkl
Year G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp% Yds YPA TD Int Rat YAC Cmb Tck MTkl
2020 15 15 57 98 58.2% 732 7.5 7 2 97.0 318 48 4
2019 15 15 37 74 50.0% 491 6.6 0 1 65.8 98 61 6

In the summer of 2020, when I wrote up a “team of the millenium” roster for the Steelers, I wrestled with whether Nelson belonged on the squad, even though he’d only played one season in Pittsburgh. Many of us had come to think of him as a shutdown corner after 2019, and were amazed that he’d come so cheap to the team.

That seems insane today, after the season Nelson had last year, and after the Steelers cut him outright.

But if you look at his numbers from the last two years, it’s a tale of two Nelsons. One of them is an island; the other, I don’t know, a port? Which one was the “true” Steven Nelson? I have no idea. Maybe both; maybe neither. But whatever the case, if you’re wondering why the Steelers cut ties with their one-time shut-down corner, the numbers above can probably give an indication why.


Yards After Catch (YAC) Allowed

Pittsburgh Steelers v New York Giants Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Okay, back to the rest of the guys. Since every corner allows a reception from time to time, tackling the catch is crucial. How well do the Steelers CBs limit YAC?

Games 1-10

NFL all AFC all NFL CBs AFC CBs All defenders G GS Tgt YAC /Tgt
NFL all AFC all NFL CBs AFC CBs All defenders G GS Tgt YAC /Tgt
1 1 1 1 Joe Haden 10 10 62 57 0.9
165 68 89 47 Steven Nelson 10 10 67 238 3.6
109 46 67 33 Mike Hilton 6 3 22 64 2.9
34 23 24 14 Cameron Sutton 10 2 27 54 2

Oh. My. Goodness. Joe Haden. What!?

Okay, now that that’s out of my system, let’s identify that Cam Sutton (again, next year’s projected starter) looks like a legit corner too. It was Mike Hilton and especially Steven Nelson (both of whom will not play in black and gold in 2021) who struggled with bringing down the receivers in the first 10 games.

Games 11-16

NFL all AFC all NFL CBs AFC CBs All defenders G GS Tgt YAC /Tgt
NFL all AFC all NFL CBs AFC CBs All defenders G GS Tgt YAC /Tgt
- - - - Joe Haden 4 4 17 57 3.4
- - - - Steven Nelson 5 5 31 80 2.6
- - - - Mike Hilton 6 3 23 74 3.2
- - - - Cameron Sutton 6 4 29 109 3.8

Whoo-boy. In as much as completion percentage and passer rating improved over the final six weeks for Steelers corners, tackling the catch certainly did not.

Three or four yards after the catch might not seem deadly at face value, but if you consider a 3rd and 8 pass that connects for just over four yards, that defense has just forced a punt. However, that same pass, plus three and a half yards after the catch, is a first down. And that’s what the Steelers corners allowed on average in the last six weeks.

Full Season

NFL all AFC all NFL CBs AFC CBs All defenders G GS Tgt YAC /Tgt
NFL all AFC all NFL CBs AFC CBs All defenders G GS Tgt YAC /Tgt
6 6 5 5 Joe Haden 14 14 79 114 1.4
138 62 83 41 Steven Nelson 15 15 98 318 3.2
127 57 75 36 Mike Hilton 12 6 45 138 3.1
97 45 60 30 Cameron Sutton 16 6 56 163 2.9

At the end of the day, Joe Haden is clearly the star of the Steelers secondary. Any player who sits in the top 6 in the NFL overall, in any category, is the real thing.

The remaining Pittsburgh corners are all in the middling/mediocre range. Sutton appears the strongest at tackling the catch, but he is not far superior than Nelson or Hilton. Sutton, in fact, seems to have stumbled the furthest over the final stetch of games — which is not a good thing, given that his snaps/targets picked up during this period. Nelson, meanwhile is the only one who seemed to improve a bit over the final run.

Overall, though, Haden was the only player with bragging rights on tackling the catch. (P.S. how did he fail to make the Pro Bowl in 2020? These numbers are really impressive.)


Touchdowns Allowed Per Target

Games 1-10

NFL all AFC all NFL CBs AFC CBs All defenders G GS Tgt TD /Tgt
NFL all AFC all NFL CBs AFC CBs All defenders G GS Tgt TD /Tgt
98 30 42 16 Joe Haden 10 10 62 2 3.2%
220 72 102 52 Steven Nelson 10 10 67 6 9.0%
138 44 63 28 Mike Hilton 6 3 22 1 4.5%
114 34 50 20 Cameron Sutton 10 2 27 1 3.7%

Woof. This isn’t good. Only one Steelers corner snuck into the top 100 players in the league at stopping touchdowns, and that’s just barely. Yikes.

I don’t mean to pile on Steven Nelson either, but he clearly emerges as the weak link on the defense in these first ten games. To give up six touchdowns in 10 weeks is stunning. To be ranked 52nd in the conference among CBs means that (theoretically) every single team has three corners more successful than Nelson. (And that includes the Steelers!)

Games 11-16

NFL all AFC all NFL CBs AFC CBs All defenders G GS Tgt TD /Tgt
NFL all AFC all NFL CBs AFC CBs All defenders G GS Tgt TD /Tgt
- - - - Joe Haden 4 4 17 1 5.9%
- - - - Steven Nelson 5 5 31 1 3.2%
- - - - Mike Hilton 6 3 23 0 0.0%
- - - - Cameron Sutton 6 4 29 0 0.0%

Once again, the Steelers corners generally improved in the final six weeks (Haden slipped slightly).

Importantly, though it’s not highlighted here, Mike Hilton also snagged two interceptions during this stretch (which explains his dramatic QBR improvement). Joe Haden grabbed another (his pick-6 against Baltimore), but that was the only other interception made by Steelers CBs.

What’s the takeaway? Maybe the Steelers started playing a slightly more conservative game late in the year. The opponent completion percentage went down, as did touchdowns allowed. Meanwhile, they grabbed fewer interceptions and were slightly worse at tackling the catch.

Full Season

NFL all AFC all NFL CBs AFC CBs All defenders G GS Tgt TD /Tgt
NFL all AFC all NFL CBs AFC CBs All defenders G GS Tgt TD /Tgt
104 51 41 22 Joe Haden 14 14 79 3 3.8%
206 104 97 50 Steven Nelson 15 15 98 7 7.1%
52 27 20 11 Mike Hilton 12 6 45 1 2.2%
43 23 14 8 Cameron Sutton 16 6 56 1 1.8%

One positive of these final numbers comes from Cam Sutton, who was targetted quite often for a man who only started six contests, but was only burned for one score all year. Moreover, Sutton was generally considered the #3 cover corner on the team, as opposed to Hilton, who was more of a blitzing, run-stopping nickel man. That is, Hilton’s numbers (particularly his aforementioned interceptions) look impressive, but he was more free to jump routes in a zone than Sutton.

That’s not necessarily predictive of much — one season does not create the next (see also: Nelson, Steven). But Sutton replacing Nelson ought to make us feel cautiously optimistic. Much more complicated is replacing Hilton’s hard-hitting, route-jumping, QB-terrorizing, run-stuffing nickel. I don’t have a solution for that.


Missed Tackles

Wild Card Round - Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Missed tackles was my (and many of our) biggest irritation last season. It was obvious on the multiple deep touchdown passes and runs, as well as the numerous 3rd-and-long conversions that should have been stopped. The ILBs looked genuinely bad in this department (their only real weakness), which seemed to speak to the Steelers’ rush defense, since those guys were strong at limiting YAC. Safeties, meanwhile, were also mediocre in this category. How did the corners do?

Games 1-10

NFL all AFC all NFL CBs AFC CBs All defenders G GS Comb MTkl MTkl%
NFL all AFC all NFL CBs AFC CBs All defenders G GS Comb MTkl MTkl%
324 159 73 37 Joe Haden 10 10 42 6 12.50%
121 61 18 10 Steven Nelson 10 10 30 2 6.30%
371 183 85 44 Mike Hilton 6 3 30 5 14.30%
75 42 11 5 Cameron Sutton 10 2 21 1 4.50%
Missed tackle percentage is calculated by dividing the missed tackles by the total tackle attempts (actual combined tackles plus those missed). That tells the percentage of total tackle attempts that failed.

Well, that’s unpleasant. And confusing.

Joe Haden, who at this point in the season was #1 in the NFL (at any position) at limiting yards after the catch, is #324 at missing tackles. I can only assume this means Haden was a detriment to the team’s run defense.

On the flip side, Steven Nelson, who was #47 among AFC cornerbacks in YAC allowed, rises to 10th in this category. Similarly, I’m guessing that Nelson was either a strong run defender on the edge, or that he eventually chased down pass receivers fairly successfully (but only after they’d gained extra yards).

Games 11-16

NFL all AFC all NFL CBs AFC CBs All defenders G GS Comb MTkl MTkl%
NFL all AFC all NFL CBs AFC CBs All defenders G GS Comb MTkl MTkl%
- - - - Joe Haden 4 4 10 3 30.00%
- - - - Steven Nelson 5 5 18 2 11.10%
- - - - Mike Hilton 6 3 21 6 28.60%
- - - - Cameron Sutton 6 4 9 4 44.40%

Holy crap! What the hell happened to these guys in the final weeks?

Full Season

NFL all AFC all NFL CBs AFC CBs All defenders G GS Comb MTkl MTkl%
NFL all AFC all NFL CBs AFC CBs All defenders G GS Comb MTkl MTkl%
408 194 83 43 Joe Haden 14 14 52 9 14.80%
163 71 29 14 Steven Nelson 15 15 48 4 7.70%
445 215 98 50 Mike Hilton 12 6 51 11 17.70%
393 183 81 42 Cameron Sutton 16 6 30 5 14.30%

Okay, time to reiterate a notion from the previous two essays: “If I were Keith Butler, wrapping up and finishing the take-down would be the highest priority for training camp this year.”


One More Note: Cam Sutton, Mike Hilton, and Steven Nelson as Starters

If we can agree that Joe Haden is the class of the Steelers secondary, there’s a lingering question about what the team loses with Mike Hilton and Steve Nelson’s departures, and what they gain by Cam Sutton’s promotion.

Sutton and Hilton each started six contests; Nelson started 15. Since Sutton will likely start in 2021, I thought it would be useful to see what these three looked like as starters.

Average Per Start

Player GS Cmp Tgt Cmp% Yds TD Int Rat YAC/att Comb MTkl MTkl% Bltz
Player GS Cmp Tgt Cmp% Yds TD Int Rat YAC/att Comb MTkl MTkl% Bltz
Steven Nelson 15 3.8 6.5 58.5% 48.8 0.5 0.1 97.0 3.2 3.2 0.3 7.7% 0.0
Mike Hilton 6 4.2 5.8 72.4% 47.2 0.2 0.3 75.4 3.3 6.2 1.2 15.9% 4.7
Cameron Sutton 6 3.8 6.3 60.3% 49.7 0 0 85.2 3.5 2.7 0.3 11.1% 0.3
“Bltz” = the number of times a player was sent in on a corner blitz

These numbers reflect all starts through the whole season (i.e. not just the first ten games, or the final six). Here are a few categories to keep your eyes on:

Completion Percentage:

In six starts, Sutton’s completion percentage allowed was very comparable to Nelson. Mike Hilton, meanwhile, was significantly less effective. In other words, if Sutton can maintain this pace through the next season, he’ll be a decent sidekick for Joe Haden. Not ideal, but serviceable.

Yards Allowed per Start:

This is remarkably similar. These three gave up nearly the exact same amount of yardage per start. None of them are in Haden’s class (39.9), but whichever player the Steelers kept, there wouldn’t be a significant drop off.

Touchdowns Allowed per Start:

Sutton gave up zero touchdowns in his six starts, while Hilton allowed 1 (or 0.2 per start). Nelson, meanwhile (as we’ve seen), gave up 7 (or nearly a touchdown every other game). This makes Sutton appear to be an upgrade.

Tackles, Missed Tackles, and Blitzes per Start:

Here’s where there will be a significant shift. Sutton and Nelson are similar in all three of these categories. Sutton made, on average, one half tackle fewer than Nelson in their respective starts, and the two had nearly identical expectations for missing tackles. Meanwhile, Sutton was sent in on only two corner blitzes, while Nelson wasn’t sent on any. In other words, we can imagine Sutton to be used more or less exactly as Nelson was, and for his tackling prowess to be essentially the same.

Hilton, by contrast, made 6.2 tackles per start (more than twice as many as Sutton), missed 1.2 tackles per start (four times as many as Sutton or Nelson), and was sent in on 4.7 blitzes per game (28 blitzes in six games) when Sutton and Nelson — and Haden, to boot — combined for only two.

In other words, as starters, Cam Sutton appears to be at least as reliable as Steven Nelson in coverage and tackling, and perhaps with more upside (though that’s yet to be seen). This looks like an even trade. But losing Mike Hilton has the flavor of losing a coverage-safety — that is, a DB who can make interceptions, make tackles, and blitz, but who you wouldn’t want to put on the outside if you can avoid it.


That’s a lot of information. But I think the story it tells us is that the Steelers coverage game with Joe Haden and Cam Sutton looks like it will be okay. But there’s now a depth issue on the outside (since Sutton and Nelson would be nice to have on the same roster, in case one got hurt). And more importantly, a nickel man who can play near the line is now a huge priority to develop.

Teryl Austin is a good coach, and the Steelers have a lot of young talent on the defense. That’s good. Let’s hope those two facts converge, and the newly created soft-spots in the secondary can be shored up. And let’s hope Keith Butler spends a lot of time with the tackling dummies this summer.

Stay tuned for round 4, the Pass Rushers. Go Steelers.