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The Pittsburgh Steelers secondary has real problems

With Antoine Brooks Jr. and Arthur Maulet hurt, the Steelers secondary has more questions than it does answers.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Hilton signed with the Cincinnati Bengals. Steven Nelson was released and ended up signing with the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Steelers responded by signing Arthur Maulet from the Jets and drafting Tre Norwood in the 7th round. But it was okay, because the Steelers were going to fill the holes Hilton and Nelson left with players already on the roster.

Antoine Brooks Jr. was a LB/S/CB hybrid at Maryland, he was a dynamic attacking player, making plays in the backfield while being able to give good enough coverage on receivers as well. After seeing the field in one game as the dime back in 2020, he lost weight, worked on his craft and was the early favorite for the nickel back job.

Cameron Sutton, a third round pick in 2017, had developed into a smart and versatile coverage specialist that played almost every role on the Steelers defense in 2019 and 2020. He excelled in almost any coverage role, and did a really good job filling in for Steven Nelson when called on.

The Steven Nelson release had a lot to do with the Steelers confidence Sutton could fill his shoes well enough, and could save them substantial cap space doing it. If you can get 80% of the value at less than half the cost? That’s a smart deal.

James Pierre was the wild card, he played incredibly well in a very small sample size for the Steelers in 2020, at worst he could once again be the bottom of the depth chart, but with the upside to push for more snaps, maybe even a major role.

With Justin Layne around to be additional depth, the Steelers had the luxury of letting players compete for the open roles, with confidence they had enough pieces to make it work.

Essentially, the Steelers had enough pieces that they could safely assume they could fill the open roles in the defense. Things have changed.


The kids are alright, but are they good enough?

Antoine Brooks Jr. was looking really good in the slot linebacker side of Mike Hilton’s old job. He slimmed down and was quicker, but still filling run lanes and hitting hard. In coverage he was no Mike Hilton, but the Steelers could cover for him a bit as he grew into the role.

When Brooks was injured, the Steelers still had Arthur Maulet who could be a more physical DB in the nickel, even if he wasn’t as stout as Brooks Jr. He could hold down the fort. But with Maulet injured and Brooks now released and likely headed to IR, the Steelers are on plan C, James Pierre.

James Pierre has had a good follow-up to last season, but he’s shown he’s not a lock-down corner, and he’s looked vulnerable to both quick cuts and speed in the preseason. He’s a solid option, but not a great one.

Also, James Pierre is an outside corner on this team, they haven’t worked him in the slot, he’s going to play on the outside. That’s okay, because Cameron Sutton knows every position in the secondary and can slide into the slot in nickel defense.

But there is a problem when he does that. Sutton knows the defense, he knows the assignments in the slot, he’s just not very good at the more physical side of that position.

When Mike Hilton was injured in 2020, Cameron Sutton filled in as the nickelback. There were problems. Sutton isn’t a blitzer at all, he doesn’t take on blockers well in the run game, and he’s a solid help tackler at best against running backs. When the Steelers faced the Ravens with Cameron Sutton at nickel, the Ravens targeted Sutton’s run defense as the way to attack the Steelers. After experimenting with swapping Sutton and either Terrell Edmunds or Minkah Fitzpatrick to get a better tackler in the slot, the Steelers in the second half stopped using the nickel formation entirely, playing their 7 man front packages, where either Bud Dupree or T.J. Watt essentially took on the nickel back role, and would switch directly from 3-4 personnel to dime personnel.

To start the season the Steelers are going to be relying on Cameron Sutton in the slot, and James Pierre coming in to play outside corner in nickel defense. There was a reason the Steelers were talking about using a rotation at the nickel, because against a team like the Bengals that threw the vast majority of the time they were in 3 WR sets, Cameron Sutton is a great nickel back. Against teams like the Browns or Ravens that love to run out of those sets, Sutton is not a great option.

Behind Sutton and Pierre the Steelers don’t have many options.

Arthur Maulet was looking alright in preseason, he looked like he was getting up to speed in a new defense, but now he’s hurt. He’s lost time to get comfortable in that role, and he has to work his way back from injury to even start that process. He will likely be a good role player in the secondary later in the season, but right now he’s not someone the Steelers should be relying on.

Justin Layne has looked good, but he’s outside corner only, and the Steelers need help in the nickel.

The young guys behind Layne are unproven and haven’t looked great even against fringe NFL players.

The Steelers current depth at nickel back looks like this:

Cameron Sutton sliding inside.

???

Yep. Panic mode starts directly behind Cameron Sutton, who is a coverage specialist that can play outside corner well. The Steelers have zero healthy corners right now who are good nickel options against a team that runs out of 3 WR sets.


The options

There aren’t a lot of options for the Steelers right now. Let’s look at the main two.

Waiting for Maulet

Arthur Maulet should be returning in time for Week 1. The Steelers can hope to get by with Cameron Sutton as the nickel back, and work Maulet into a rotation against teams that attack the slot physically as the season progresses. This also means the Steelers need to keep another player who can fill the nickel role from what they have in camp, or cheap castoffs from other teams.

The Good News is the Steelers don’t play the Ravens or Browns early on, there aren’t matchups where you can point and say “You can’t have Cameron Sutton in the slot against that team.” early on. So with some good play from other defenders, and injury luck, the Steelers could be okay and rely on Arthur Maulet when the schedule has more physical teams in the second half of the season.

Go get your nickel back

The Steelers have some cap space left, even assuming a giant T.J. Watt contract eats a good chunk. The Steelers could make a trade, or if things fall right, a veteran could get cut who fits nicely, the way Joe Haden joined the Steelers in 2017. A proven nickel corner would allow the Steelers to ditch the rotating corners idea entirely, let Cameron Sutton focus entirely on his transition to starting corner and, by moving other DBs down the depth chart one spot, turn what is right now a shaky depth chart into a strong one. Like how Joe Schobert’s addition not only filled a need as a starter, but made the inside linebacker depth chart significantly deeper by moving Robert Spillane to the #3 spot.

I’m firmly in the second camp. This secondary isn’t in great shape, and while I love the development of James Pierre, I don’t want to see him in nickel and I don’t want to see Cameron Sutton as the nickel back. You send James Pierre in to play outside in dime defense (where he excelled in 2020) and slide Cameron Sutton into the dime role (where he excelled in 2020) with a proven nickel back taking over for Mike HIlton and I would be really high on this secondary.

But right now? With James Pierre slated to take a big step up and Cameron Sutton slotted to play at the secondary position he was the worst at in nickel formations, the most common defensive formation used in the NFL last season?

I’m not exactly confident.