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Can the Steelers defensive backs take the next step up?

Looking at the players poised to take the next step in their game.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Hilton and Steven Nelson are gone, and there are a number of players competing to try and fill the roles they left empty. I want to look at some players that are in position to take a step up and help the secondary remain a top unit in the NFL. I won’t be looking at any rookies, they all have the same next step to take, adapting to the NFL game. I also am not going to talk about Minkah Fitzpatrick or Joe Haden, they don’t really need to step up, they were major reasons for the success of the secondary last season.

There are six players that are in position to take that next step, what they need to do to take that step, and whether or not I think they will.

Let’s get into it.


Terrell Edmunds

Terrell Edmunds is entering his 4th season with the Steelers, and his 4th as a starter. Edmunds has started 43 of the 48 games the Steelers have played since he was drafted. Edmunds leads all Steelers in tackles over those 3 seasons by a good margin, and he leads all Steeler defenders in snaps played. Yet Edmunds has one of the lowest rates of forcing turnovers among consistent contributors.

Edmunds’ lack of turnovers, in my opinion, is in large part due to his play in zone defense. Edmunds is a really good man defender, capable of locking down good receiving tight ends and running backs, and doing a very good job covering wide receivers, including some of the top receivers in the NFL. When he is in zone defense though, Edmunds seems to be a half-second late reading the play and reacting to it. He makes up for it with his elite athleticism and gets in on a ton of tackles, but he doesn’t get there fast enough to make a play on the ball.

If Edmunds can improve his read and react speed through experience and film study, he could become a truly dynamic safety. If not he still holds value as a matchup cancelling man defender and a tackling machine.

Prediction: Doubtful. Terrell Edmunds is a good sidekick, but I don’t see him becoming much more. How valuable his versatility and athleticism are to the Steelers will determine if he continues his career in Pittsburgh beyond this season.


Cameron Sutton

Cameron Sutton was one of the best, if not the best #4 corner in the NFL the last few years. He has been a solid contributor since he was drafted in 2017, and really started to shine in 2019 as the defense evolved with the addition of Teryl Austin. Sutton was valuable as a player who excelled in coverage in both man and zone, especially deep coverage. He filled in well when asked to start in 2020, and now is the front runner to replace Steven Nelson as an outside starter.

Cameron Sutton’s next step to take is winning the chess matches that occur over a whole game between a receiver and a starting corner. Sutton was an extremely effective corner in rotational snaps, but when he started and played every snap he wasn’t as effective. A dime back playing all over the secondary needs to know all the jobs and how to do them well, but a starting outside corner needs to know his opponent, their tendencies and the tricks they will use to get open. Sutton struggled at times against the better receivers when he played outside, learning to play winning chess against the better receivers in the NFL is a key step for Sutton, and if he can take it, it will be a big boost to the Steelers defense.

Prediction: Positive. While Sutton might not be as good as Steven Nelson, the system is set up to give the outside corners support and set them up for success. I think Sutton will be a solid starter, but his limitations will still show up against top receivers.


Antoine Brooks Jr.

Antoine Brooks Jr. is competing to take over Mike Hilton’s slot linebacker job as the nickel back. The shoes he is attempting to fill are not small. Brooks Jr. has the right mentality and physicality for the job, he was a defensive back in college, but he played like a linebacker. He can blitz, defend the run and hit. The question is if he has the quickness to play slot corner.

His athletic testing numbers were slower than Mike Hilton’s and on film he wasn’t nearly as quick as HIlton. When he got the chance to play in week 15, he looked a step behind the rest of the players. Brooks Jr. has been losing weight since entering the NFL and experience will help him shave down his reaction time. If he can be quicker across the board, he could be the playmaker he proved he could be in college. If not, he may be limited to a special teams role in the NFL.

Prediction: Watch the preseason. Brooks Jr. will show really well in the preseason what kind of player he is right now. If he’s destroying the third and fourth string players but struggling against NFL backups he isn’t the answer. Right now I don’t even know what to expect. It’s a big step up he is trying to take, not many people make it.


Arthur Maulet

If Antoine Brooks Jr. isn’t ready to take the nickel spot this season, the Steelers have another option. Maulet is a four year NFL veteran, entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2017, the same season Mike Hilton was an undrafted free agent for the Steelers. While Hilton saw the field right away, playing over 50% of snaps from week 1 of his rookie season, Arthur Maulet waited till later in his second year to get his first defensive snaps. He proved to be a valuable depth piece for the Jets in 2019 and 2020, playing all over the secondary in those seasons.

Maulet has only played 50%+ defensive snaps for ten games of his NFL career. It is interesting to note that the Jets were 7-3 in those ten games, they were 2-20 in the other 22 games. On film Maulet is a smart, tough player who gets to the right spot on the field and fights to make plays. He could be a big addition for the Steelers if they need him to step up and play.

Maulet’s big step is to not miss his shot when it comes. Right now Antoine Brooks Jr. is the front runner for the nickel job, with James Pierre playing well enough to force the Steelers to consider innovative ways to get him on the field. Arthur Maulet may have a tough road to get snaps, but as we see every year, the depth DBs do get to play, and he will get his shot. Being comfortable enough in a new defense to make the most of that opportunity is his challenge.

Prediction: It will happen, but not early. I have a lot of faith in Maulet, I think he fits this defense really well, especially inside as either the dime or nickel back. I expect him to start the season as the #5 corner, but I also expect him to make the most of it when he does get a chance to play.


James Pierre

James Pierre was the lone UDFA to make the Steelers roster in the 2020 season, and while he only played in four games on defense and only logged 39 snaps, the small sample of film he put out was impressive. If Pierre played as well as he did when he was the #4 corner in the Steelers wild card game for a whole season he would be the Steelers #1 corner by the end of the year.

His 39 snaps were fantastic to watch. Pierre executed the defense at a high level, shutting down every receiver he faced while making complex switches and coverage look easy. James Pierre’s big step to take is taking the quality of play he showed in a very small sample size and carrying it into a bigger role. When Pierre was called on to be the “Next Man Up” he did so admirably. The question is, when he isn’t the next man, champing at the bit for his shot, but is playing regular snaps each week, can he keep the same intensity of focus and execute at that high of a level? Because if he can, he’s showed he has the potential to be a great cornerback.

Prediction: It’s not if he can make it, but how high can he rise? No one executes that well as a fluke, even in a small sample size. Pierre is the real deal. The question is, is he the real deal as the #3 corner on the team, or is he a future lock down starter? We may not get that answer this season, but I lean toward the latter.


Justin Layne

Justin Layne looked like a man out of place in 2019 and 2020. He was drafted in 2019 by a team that had Sean Davis at free safety and Terrell Edmunds at strong safety. The team was looking to run a lot of cover-1 man defense with their outside corners on an island. By week 4 of 2019 the defense was already shifting away from that strategy. As the Steelers coverage scheme was redesigned to fit Minkah Fitzpatrick’s strengths the defense became more complex and more about execution than raw physical ability.

With that change Justin Layne has fallen from an understudy being groomed to take over as a starter to a player that doesn’t really have a clear spot on this roster.

The step Justin Layne needs to take is finding a role on this team that he can fit and excel in. He isn’t pushing Cameron Sutton for the starting outside corner job, he isn’t a nickel corner and James Pierre seems to have passed him by as the top backup outside. If Justin Layne is going to stick around after his rookie deal expires, he needs to find a new spot to fit. If he can find that role, even as the dime corner, it will buy him time to grow and develop. If he can’t, he could end up losing his roster spot to a rookie like Tre Norwood or Shakur Brown.

Prediction: Not good. I would not be surprised if Justin Layne fails to make the 53 man roster, even knowing how much the Steelers like to give their mid round draft picks their full rookie deal to develop. He’s still cheap, but he could end up losing his spot to someone like Tre Norwood who was drafted largely because he excelled at a role the Steelers have open (dime). Layne doesn’t fit what the Steelers want to do in coverage anymore, that’s a tough spot to be in.


Conclusion

The Steelers have shown time and time again how they buy into Head Coach Mike Tomlin’s “Next Man Up” mantra. With two key pieces of the secondary working elsewhere in 2021, the Steelers need players to step up and become more than what they have been in the past. The ability of these men to take that next step will be a big factor in how much success the Steelers have in the 2021 season.