It seems like it would be an obvious goal. But after the Pittsburgh Steelers left arguably one of their best offensive lineman from 2020 standing on the sidelines during their Wildcard game, it’s not something that can completely be taken for granted. If the Steelers want to have a successful 2021 campaign, they’ve got a find a way to make sure their best players at a given position are the ones on the field and getting the majority of snaps.
The most obvious way this becomes a problem, much like it did in the previously mentioned example, is when it comes to rookies versus veterans and who gets the nod when the time comes. If the rookies are ready and a better option, they simply need to be the ones on the field.
More than this, it seems sometimes people get a certain notion in their head of how things need to be. When looking at the cornerback position, there are generally two players who are considered the starters with a slot cornerback coming on in sub packages. Depending on the defensive philosophy, either a fourth cornerback or safety gets added for dime packages. Either way, when the Steelers go into the sub packages, it’s important for them to get the best players on the field even if it takes some adjustments.
When the Steelers lost Mike Hilton to free agency this offseason as well as releasing Steven Nelson as a cap casualty, there were plenty of questions of how the Steelers would fill the void. By re-signing Cam Sutton, one of the positions seems to have been filled. Add in the reports of Sutton getting the opportunity to play the outside corner position in order to gain more snaps, many in Steelers Nation as well as other football analysts are saying the Steelers have a big need to fill the slot cornerback position.
But do they?
I don’t know why there is such a resistance among some of the fan base in having Sutton line up on the outside in base formations and on the inside in sub package. When the third cornerback comes on to the field, does it matter which role he goes in to fill?
What the decision of playing time at the cornerback position will ultimately come down to is getting the best players on the field and playing the position which emphasizes their strengths. If Cam Sutton earns the other starting outside cornerback position opposite of Joe Haden, it still doesn’t mean that he’s not the best option in the slot. If the player who is next on the depth chart at outside corner only has a slight fall off from the production of Sutton, but what Sutton brings to the slot is a large improvement over the next best option, this is how the Steelers need to deploy their defense. It’s all about getting the best players the most snaps.
This isn’t revolutionary as the Steelers employed a similar strategy last season in the Wildcard Game when Joe Haden was on the Reserve/COVID-19 List. Since Cam Sutton would normally have been the player coming on in dime packages, he still played the dime role even though he was playing outside corner the rest of the time. Instead, James Pierre came in and played on the outside.
This is also similar to how the Steelers deployed William Gay at various points in his career with the Steelers. Deshea Townsend saw similar usage. It’s not a crazy concept.
I’m not sure why so many people insist on the Steelers having a pure slot corner who only comes in to play that role. If Mike Hilton would have also been a better option on the outside last season, don’t you think he might have played there as well and only bumped inside whenever needed? If not, talent is just standing on the sidelines.
Cornerback is not the only position where this can occur. Look at the defensive line. When there are three players along the defensive line in base package, what happens when the Steelers go sub package and one needs to come off? Generally it’s the nose tackle who comes off the field. But what if the nose tackle is one of the better defenders on the line? This is exactly what the Steelers did in Week 17 when Cameron Heyward was held out against the Cleveland Browns in order to get some rest for the playoffs. Although Chris Wormley got to start at defensive tackle, it was Tyson Alualu who played 82% of the defensive snaps while Wormley saw 66%. This is because when the Steelers went into sub package, it wasn’t necessarily the nose tackle who came off the field.
Steelers fans need to keep in mind that it is the coach’s job to get the best players on the field in the right positions and doing things that work to their strengths. If Cam Sutton is the Steelers best option to start at outside cornerback opposite of Joe Haden, that is where he should be. But if the third best cornerback the Steelers can deploy is someone such as James Pierre or Justin Layne, the Steelers need to put their three players in the best positions to give maximum results. If this means Cam Sutton slides in to the slot cornerback position, so be it.