Most sports fans have heard of a sophomore slump. The tendency for a player, at any sport in any level, to not have the success in Year 2 that they had in their first year. For the Pittsburgh Steelers they have seen more sophomore jumps than sophomore slumps. Think about players like James Conner, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and even Ben Roethlisberger, all took a huge step forward in their careers in their second seasons.
There are many players on the Steelers’ 2021 roster who could follow this trend. Chase Claypool, Kevin Dotson and Alex Highsmith come to mind, but the player who is being talked about the most, as of late, has been undrafted cornerback James Pierre. Pierre had a noteworthy mandatory minicamp last week, and Mike Tomlin spoke about his progress made from his rookie season to Year 2.
“He is one of those second-year guys that we all have high expectations for,” Tomlin told the media after practice. “I think it’s reasonable when you’ve been around a guy that’s been in the program and understands what to expect, what is needed of him physically, mentally and so forth. I think we are looking for all of those second-year players to gain experience. That guy gained a lot of experience last year. He didn’t play a lot of defense, but he had a helmet every week, he was preparing every week. He was a critical component of our special teams unit and that is usually an indication that a guy is ready to proceed and advance, and I think it’s reasonable to expect him to do so.”
Pierre was even called to the podium to talk to the media, and he spoke about the practice he had where he got his hands on the football more than once. What spawned such a spirited practice, even if just in shirts and shorts? It was a bad practice the day before.
“I had one bad play, guy caught the ball, I just took it personal,” Pierre explained. “I came in with the right mindset.
“I should come in every day like that. I was on myself for letting somebody catch the ball. I woke up early, earlier than I usually do, attacked the day with the right mindset.”
The difference between Organized Team Activities (OTAs) and minicamp is the fact teams can do 11-on-11 drills, like the two-minute drill. There might not be contact, but Pierre outlines how he loved the two-minute based on the energy it brought to the practice session.
“I like the two-minute because it actually got the guys, got the whole team, the energy of the defense, just to see the guys turning up with me,” Pierre said. “The two minute, to end it, it’s just a good feeling just to see the guys pumped, the energy of the defense.”
One of Pierre’s interceptions came against Ben Roethlisberger, and it was an interaction with the veteran quarterback after practice which boosted Pierre’s confidence even more heading into the break before training camp.
“To be honest, Ben is not just throwing anybody a ball,” Pierre said. “It’s precious to get one of those. It’s hard to get it from Ben so when I got those it kinda made me smile. But just to see the other guys, it made me happier.
“And then after practice Ben came up to me, told me good job, gave me a fist bump. It built my confidence a little bit.”
There is another second year player who is hoping to make an impact on the defensive backfield, and that would be Antoine Brooks Jr. The former 6th round draft pick in the 2020 NFL Draft caught Tomlin’s attention, and is seen as someone who can help fill the void left by Mike Hilton.
“He played the slot for us some last year in regular season football games when Mike Hilton missed a block of time,” said Tomlin. “One specifically here at home he probably played 25 plus snaps on defense. His college resume indicates he has capability in that area. We worked him there in the past. He’s had some success. He will be given an opportunity to grow and develop and display those skills. We’ll determine when we get closer to action how we divide the labor and who does what. But he’s done a good job of that thus far.”
With Hilton and Steven Nelson gone from the defensive backfield the Steelers will have to rely on younger players to fill those voids, and it looks like the sophomores will be called upon early and often to make big contributions on the defensive side of the ball.
Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the black and gold as they prepare for the 2021 regular season.