This article is a follow-up to the piece I wrote on the Hall of Fame Game featuring Matt Canada’s debut as offensive coordinator and the performance of the offensive line. Here, I look at the competition at the nickel position on defense and at how the leading candidates fared.
The Steelers appear to be auditioning two players to succeed the departed Mike Hilton as the team’s primary nickel defender. They are second-year safety Antoine Brooks, a 2020 6th Round draft pick from Maryland, and fifth-year player Arthur Maulet, who was signed as a free agent this off-season from the New York Jets. Brooks, who was listed as the starting nickel when the Steelers released their initial depth chart, and Maulet, who was listed as his primary backup, split reps over the first three quarters against the Dallas Cowboys. Based on their performances, that pecking order should stand for at least another week. While Brooks was not spectacular in his debut, he performed well enough to justify the faith the team has shown in him this summer.
Brooks is an aggressive tackler and blitzer whose playing style is reminiscent of Hilton’s. It’s obvious the Steelers see him similarly based on how he was utilized against Dallas. Brooks played the first three defensive series of the game, 22 snaps in all, and blitzed on 10 of them. He lined up almost exclusively in the slot, where he either came off of the edge or feigned doing so before falling back into coverage.
You can see how aggressive Brooks is in this initial clip. Here, on Dallas’s first offensive snap of the game, Brooks (#25, left slot) beat the running back on an inside track to the quarterback with pure speed. The back, who had a check-release assignment, false-stepped towards his swing route and could not recover in time to block the speedy Brooks. Dallas quarterback Garrett Gilbert smartly hit his hot route on the play. Had he not, Brooks would have planted Gilbert in the chest:
One thing Brooks must learn, though, is that aggression alone will not make him an effective blitzer. He will need to time his stunts well and to avoid blockers as he pursues the quarterback.
We saw an example of that later in the opening drive, where Brooks (top of the screen, right slot) came from too deep and was slow getting to Gilbert. Then, at the point of contact, he ran square into the chest of 6’8-325 pound tackle Ty Nsekhe. While Brooks managed to jolt Nsekhe with a nice two-hand punch to the chest, it did little to help him get to Garrett. Brooks will need to work on using his quickness to get around big linemen rather than trying to power his way through them:
Three plays later, Brooks did try to beat Nsekhe with speed. He hugged the edge and came off of Nsekhe’s hip on a direct path to Gilbert. Unfortunately, Brooks didn’t combine a rush move or any discernable technique with his speed. He simply tried to run past Nsekhe and was thrown to the ground. A dip-and-rip move from Brooks may have gotten him under Nsekhe’s hands or at least helped him keep his feet, where he could have flattened out and pursued Gilbert. While his pressure forced Gilbert to scramble out of the pocket to his left, where a difficult throw across his body was nearly intercepted, giving up containment like this against a more mobile quarterback will be dangerous.
Against the run, Brooks’ aggression proved beneficial. Here, he looked just like Hilton coming off of the right edge, flattening out and making a nice tackle at the line of scrimmage. At 5’11-210, Brooks is significantly bigger than the 5’9-185 pound Hilton. Hilton was extremely valuable to the Steelers as a run defender the past four seasons. Brooks’ combination of size and speed should make him similarly effective.
Other teams have coaches too, of course, and with Brooks blitzing so frequently, it was only a matter of time before the Cowboys took advantage. Here, they did so with a simple bootleg, faking the run to Gilbert’s left before rolling away and throwing to the tight end in the right flat. Brooks was not in terrible position but he got caught with his eyes on the back and was too flat to keep Gilbert contained:
Brooks will have to learn to read the nuances that often give away play-action, such as the pad level of offensive linemen or the demeanor of the back as he approaches the mesh point with the quarterback. And defensive coordinator Keith Butler will have to avoid being predictable with how he utilizes Brooks. 10 blitzes in 22 snaps is a high frequency. While Butler was probably more concerned with acclimating Brooks to his new role than microscoping his scheme, this will be something to monitor as the season progresses.
Astute readers may be asking themselves at this point in the article, what about pass coverage? Where are the clips that show Brooks defending receivers? The answer is this: there are none. Why? Because on the 9 plays in which Brooks did drop into coverage, he was not targeted once. That’s a positive. It means two things. First, that Brooks did a nice job taking away Dallas’s slot receivers. And second, that neither Gilbert nor offensive coordinator Kellen Moore were interested in challenging Brooks. Neither saw him as a liability in coverage nor as a player they felt they could exploit. The silence on Brooks as far as his pass defense was concerned is an encouraging sign.
So, although Brooks has some technique issues to refine to improve as a blitzer, he showed against Dallas that he may represent a bigger version of Hilton in that role. While he was not challenged in pass coverage, and while tougher assignments in that regard undoubtedly await, he discouraged the Cowboys from throwing his way by being fundamentally sound. Brooks also recovered a fumble following a catch by a Dallas receiver and made a nice return with it. All things considered, it was a solid evening for the young man. Brooks did nothing to discourage the Steelers from continuing to prep him to be their starting nickel player.
As for Maulet, the results were a bit more uneven. Maulet entered the game at nickel with less than two minutes to play in the first half and the Cowboys in hurry-up mode. He may as well have come in with a “Throw Here” sign attached to his back. The Cowboys went after him immediately, targeting Maulet on four of the first six plays he was on the field.
The first rep, seen below, did not go well. Maulet (right slot, #35) used a feather technique to defend Malik Turner (17). In this technique, a defensive back shuffles his feet instead of backpedaling. He then uses his off-hand to jam a receiver as the receiver breaks his cushion before attaching to his hip and running with him. Here, Maulet let his feet get stagnant then whiffed on his attempt to jam Turner. Turner beat him inside for a big completion:
Dallas went back to this matchup on the next play and hit Turner in front of Maulet for a shorter gain. Two plays later, quarterback Cooper Rush missed an open receiver against whom Maulet was defending on an out-cut that would have picked up a 1st down. It was clear Dallas liked the matchups they were getting against Maulet. To his credit, Maulet (left slot) responded by gaining good position on this 3rd down throw to force an incompletion. Maulet did a better job tracking the inside hip of the receiver here, creating a small window in which to throw:
As a blitzer, Maulet was not nearly as explosive as Brooks. You can see below as he gets pinballed from the left tackle to the running back that he doesn’t have much power in his hands or his base. Maulet did make one nice play on the blitz where he chased down a run from the backside to make a tackle. Most of his reps looked like this one, though, where he got washed out or was overmatched:
This did not deter Butler from blitzing Maulet. Maulet played 18 snaps and blitzed on 8 of them. That’s not quite the frequency Butler used with Brooks but it’s close. It was an interesting move on Butler’s part to send his nickel players so often. Teams rarely use this many five and six-man pressures in an early pre-season game. What was Butler’s goal in doing so? To evaluate his nickel candidates as blitzers? To put his coverage players in one-on-one scenarios? To offer a red herring to the Bills, Pittsburgh’s opponent in the season-opener, who were surely taking notes? It’s hard to know. If Butler wants a nickel who will blitz like Hilton, though, Brooks is the better candidate.
And so, with one pre-season contest in the books, Brooks is a safe bet to remain the starter at nickel on the depth chart. He is clearly the better fit as a run defender and, if he can hold his own in coverage the way he did against Dallas, will close the door on any argument that suggests Maulet should get the starting nod. One game does not make a season of course, especially in August, so Brooks will have to continue to play well, beginning this Thursday night when the Steelers travel to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles.