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Steelers Vertex: Loss vs. gain at outside cornerback

The Steelers made the choice to let one starter go as a salary cap causality and specifically chose to retain a player who will get the chance to land the position.

NFL: DEC 08 Steelers at Cardinals Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With changes in the Steelers roster from 2020 to 2021, we’re going to highlight players lost at a position and the production of the assumed replacement. This week we looking at the loss of Steven Nelson and the retention of the player expected to get the first crack at the outside cornerback position in Cameron Sutton. While other players such as James Pierre and Justin Layne and may be in the mix for the job, we have already covered the differences between those two players previously.

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 it comes to the stats for Steven Nelson and Cameron Sutton, particularly in 2020, the biggest difference comes in playing time. While Steven Nelson saw his fewest number of snaps played in the last three seasons with 907 defensive snaps which were 88% of those by the Steelers, Sutton played 548 snaps, more than twice as many as he played the previous year, which equated to 53% of the Steelers defensive snaps. Steven Nelson started all 15 regular-season games in which appeared for the Steelers in 2020. As for Cameron Sutton, he appeared at all 16 games and had six starts on the season between filling in for Nelson, Joe Haden, and starting in sub packages. Both player started in the Steelers Wild Card Game against the Cleveland Browns.

Steven Nelson had 48 tackles in 2020 while Cameron Sutton finished with 30 tackles. These numbers pretty much fall in line with the amount of snaps they played. One area of difference is Steven Nelson was credited with a percentage of 7.7% pf missed tackles according to Pro Football Reference. Cameron Sutton on the other hand, he had a missed tackle percentage of 14.3%. The physicality each of these players brings is likely the contributing factor in this statistic and will be covered more in the film section.

When it comes to the advanced statistics, Steven Nelson finished 2020 surrendering 57 completions on 98 targets for a completion rate of 58.2% with two interceptions, nine passes defensed, one fumble recovery, and was credited with a debatable seven touchdown surrendered according to PFR. Nelson was also never sent on a blitz and therefore had no pass rushing statistics.

As for Cameron Sutton, he surrendered 34 completions on 56 targets for a completion percentage of 60.7%. Sutton also had one interception and eight passes defensed on the year and was credited with giving up one touchdown. Sutton was also sent on a blitz seven times in 2020 where he was credited with two pressures, one quarterback hurry, and 1.0 sacks. Sutton also forced three fumbles and had one recovery.

The biggest number difference between these two players is salary. Cameron Sutton is set to make $9 million the next two seasons with the Steelers. His salary cap number for 2021 is only $1.7 million as a Steelers added three void years to Sutton‘s contract. Sutton’s $3.5 million signing bonus came with a $1 million base salary for 2021 and $4.5 million for 2022. Steven Nelson‘s dead money hit with the Steelers of $6.17 million is almost as much as Sutton‘s cap number is set to be for the next two season combined. Nelson was due to make $8.25 million with the Steelers in 2021 as his base salary, so the savings with Sutton is significant.

Now that we know the statistics both players had a 2020 as well as the salary cap savings, what does the film show as to how much the Steelers can expect from Sutton versus Nelson based on the price?

The Film Line:

Steven Nelson was a key addition to the defense in 2019 as he and Joe Haden were likely the best cornerback tandem for the Steelers since Ike Taylor was still playing at a high level. While some metrics look at his 2020 season as being worse than 2021, a lot of that was caused by Nelson taking on tougher assignments and getting less help than in 2019. Nelson showed the same skill set as he did in 2019, and improved on some of the weaker areas of his game.

Week 10, third quarter, 4:13. Steven Nelson is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.

Nelson is a really strong deep cover corner, in man and in zone. In cover-3 here he stays with his receiver enough to give him this shot at an interception that ended up incomplete.

Week 14, second quarter, 1:55. Steven Nelson (#22) is the cornerback.

In man against Stefon Diggs in week 14 Nelson is able to stay with Diggs’ route and stays close enough off contact to play the catch and body of Diggs to keep Diggs from making a great play.

Week 15, first quarter, 9:35. Steven Nelson is the cornerback.

Tee Higgins (#85) has a 5 inch and over 20 lb. advantage on Steven Nelson, but Nelson is able to physically cut off Higgins’ route and force an incompletion. Defending these short routes while mostly on an island with his receiver was the #1 improvement I saw on film from 2019 for Steven Nelson. In 2019 he gave up a lot of underneath yards while locking down the deep routes. In 2020 he took those underneath routes away. He was targeted deep more because of it, but gave up the same yards per target on those deep balls as he did in 2019, and the overall pass defense was better for it.

The best way to show the main difference between Cameron Sutton and Steven Nelson is to go back to Week 14 against Buffalo.

Week 14, third quarter, 11:42. Cameron Sutton is the cornerback.

Cameron Sutton came into the NFL a dynamic corner who had one glaring weakness. He could cover almost anyone, was great in zone and was a ball hawk. He also struggled mightily anytime the game got physical. A pretty big problem in NFL football.

Sutton has improved immensely in his physicality, but there are times where he can still be exploited, that play against Diggs was the worst example, but there were others.

Week 13, fourth quarter, 3:10. Cameron Sutton is the cornerback.

Like this tough catch by Cam Sims, Sutton has his man blanketed but when he turns to look for the ball, Sims creates separation with his arm and is able to make the catch. It doesn’t show up a lot, Sutton really has improved in this area, but if he is the starter in 2021, teams will be looking to attack him this way.

Week 13, first quarter, 6:16, Cameron Sutton (#20) is the cornerback.

Sutton’s vulnerability to physical receivers is one of the reasons you see him bail off the line of scrimmage right before the snap so often. This play shows why he can get away with it. Sutton is able to make up the ground between him and Cam Sims and knock the ball away on this play. You can see Sims was looking to run into Sutton and physically create the space to make the catch, but with a little extra space he can’t, and Sutton wins the play.

Week 13, fourth quarter, 10:45. Cameron Sutton is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

That drop also sets Sutton up to shut down deep routes. On this play Sutton’s receiver is locked down and there is no window for the quarterback to throw into.

The Point:

Steven Nelson was a better cornerback than Cameron Sutton in 2020. They were close in deep cover, both man and zone, but Nelson was better in short coverage and in run support largely because he’s better when teams get physical with him. While there is very likely going to be a drop-off from Nelson to Sutton, it isn’t as big as the gap in the two players’ salaries. Reports say Nelson is looking for higher-end starting cornerback money, and he is still a free-agent. Cameron Sutton signed a two-year deal for significantly less than the Steelers cap hit would have been Steven Nelson for this season. How the Steelers cover for that small drop-off will be something to watch for this season.

Cost above replacement is something the Steelers have needed to consider for the 2021 season. While we don’t know exactly what the Steelers are thinking when it comes to Sutton’s ability versus Nelson’s as maybe they believe Sutton is able to develop into a better player, what it seems the Steelers are dealing with at this time is a large drop in salary versus a smaller drop in production. If Sutton can increase his physicality with additional playing time, there may not be a noticeable difference in cornerback play.