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How will the Steelers defend slot receivers in 2021?

The Steelers may have to get creative on defense in 2021.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

The slot receiver has become an increasingly important position in NFL offenses. The last few seasons the importance of slot receivers has increased even more. Now receivers that line up in the slot are targeted more than in any other alignment, and those passes are the most effective, with higher yards per target and a higher passer rating than targets to outside receivers, in-line tight ends or receivers coming out of the backfield.

For the last 4 seasons, Mike Hilton was the Steelers nickel back, the primary slot defender. He did a phenomenal job, and earned a big paycheck for his work in coverage (7 INTs, 32 passes defended and a 72.2 passer rating against) and as a run defender and blitzer (9.5 sacks, 23 QB hits and 30 TFL) in the 59 games he played for the Steelers.

With Mike Hilton gone, the Steelers slot defense is in a state of flux right now.

Since this role in the Steelers defense is going to be an important one to watch this year, I wanted to take a look at the different ways the Steelers defend slot receivers, through what they have shown in this preseason. We’ll start with the one most likely to raise Steeler fans blood pressure.

Inside Linebackers in the slot

I know, that phrase is nearly traumatic for Steeler fans, but it is important to cover, so steel yourself and let’s dive in.

Hall of Fame game, 1st quarter, 1:48
Cameron Sutton is the corner to the top of the screen, Robert Spillane is the slot defender on that side.

The first quarter of the first game since the Wild Card loss and here we are. Robert Spillane covering a receiver in the slot. It’s like Keith Butler personally hates you. But there’s two important things to see on this play. First is Cameron Sutton passing off his deep receiver to try and jump the out route that has beaten Spillane. That’s the Joe Haden defense, that out route becomes the outside receivers job, the deep safety will pick up Sutton’s man heading down the sideline. Sutton is no Haden though, he is not slow to recognize the play, he’s just not at Joe Haden’s level in play recognition, and he is late to the catch.

The second thing to look at is the bottom of the screen, where Antoine Brooks Jr. (#25) and James Pierre (#42) also switch, this time with Brooks Jr. heading deep.

The Steelers know those out routes are mismatches for linebackers in man and for less quick nickel backs, so these kind of switches can take away that mismatch. Notice both Spillane and Brooks Jr. have inside leverage, they are in position to defend anything to the inside because they have that leverage advantage that puts them a step ahead of the receiver. Any out-breaking route is on the cornerback.

Steelers vs. Lions, 1st quarter, 11:28
Joe Schobert (#45) is the linebacker to the top of the screen, just outside the Steelers logo.

This is how Haden does it. I know I’ve showcased this play in a film room already this preseason, but it’s fantastic and I’m showing it again. This isn’t slot defense, but this is what the Steelers hope for with the switches you saw above, and it’s what they get with Joe Haden. The other cornerbacks just aren’t on his level of play recognition.

The better the other outside corners get at reading and jumping these routes, the less inside linebackers in slot defense will hurt.

Outside Linebackers do it too

It’s not just inside linebackers that get moved out to cover players in the slot, in the Steelers 3-4 sets, it’s often the outside linebacker that is tasked with covering the slot.

Steelers vs. Lions, 2nd quarter, 11:23
Alex Highsmith is the outside linebacker to the bottom of the screen, he moves out into the slot with the motion.

Notice Cameron Sutton (#20, corner outside of Highsmith) and how he is looking at the quarterback and positioned to help inside. Also notice the inside leverage again from the linebacker in the slot. Notice the safety lined up behind Highsmith, and how he drops deeper and wider at the snap. This is how the Steelers like to defend a side with 2 receivers, a linebacker, outside corner and safety. The linebacker takes the inside route, the corner the outside one, and if the slot route is an out, the corner jumps it and the safety takes the outside receiver going deep, with linebacker help if that receiver runs a slant or post.

I know this was a run play, but you can see the setup for the defense pretty clearly here, and that scheme is designed to limit the vulnerability of the linebacker in the slot.

Also notice the offense only has two receivers, and they get this matchup with motion. It isn’t just the Steelers running seven man fronts against 11 personnel that cause these matchups.

Steelers vs. Panthers, 2nd quarter, 5:07
Cassius Marsh is the slot defender to the top of the screen.

But here we see the Steelers running 3-4 against 11 personnel. That leaves Cassius Marsh on a receiver in the slot. Again notice the safety right behind Marsh. If the receiver beats Marsh deep, there’s a safety helping. Cassius Marsh was actually good in coverage, it was his best ability. Sadly for him, the Steelers value pass rush and run defense more than coverage from their outside linebackers.

Now look at the running back against Robert Spillane. With Marsh and the safety both deep and the outside corner covering his man, the Panthers have Chuba Hubbard in space 1v1 with Spillane. You can see the importance of bringing in a better coverage linebacker like Joe Schobert on this play.

The Steelers ran their 3-4 defense against 11 personnel a good bit in 2020, especially when Mike Hilton was hurt or they were facing a team that really likes to run out of 3 WR sets.

Running 3-4 without a LB in the slot

The Steelers can run 3-4 without exposing a linebacker to being the slot defender. All they have to do is bring the strong safety up to the slot.

Steelers vs. Panthers, 1st quarter, 6:37
Miles Killebrew is the slot defender to the top of the screen.

Killebrew is in the slot here, and there’s only one deep safety. The Panthers try to win this route by running the slot across the field, but Killebrew is up to the challenge, and you can see Killebrew still on his man at the end of the play.

Steelers vs. Panthers, 1st quarter, 7:53
Miles Killebrew is the slot defender to the top of the screen.

The downside to bringing the strong safety up in the slot is you only have one deep safety, so the Steelers can’t give help to the slot like they do when a linebacker is in the slot. The safety is on an island here, and Killebrew has to respect the deep route. That gives the receiver the space to make a quick in-cut for a quick 8 yard gain.

The Steelers using inside linebackers, outside linebackers or the strong safety in the slot are opponent specific matchups. It may seem counter-intuitive, but when teams come out in 2 TE sets and spread out wide, the best coverage for the slot is to put a linebacker on the receiver, while brining up a safety gives the offense an advantage in the slot with a trade off of better pass rush and run defense.

Slot corner options beyond Cameron Sutton

The Steelers current plan to replace Mike Hilton as the nickel back is to move Cameron Sutton inside and play James Pierre as the outside corner in nickel. While that presents its own problems with Sutton being asked to take on more run defense and blitzing than he’s suited for, the real question is who do they have beyond Sutton, both as the dime back, and in case Sutton is unavailable for a few drives or games.

The Steelers have James Pierre and Justin Layne on the roster, but they are both outside corners. In the fourth preseason game, backup free safety Tre Norwood was thrown in as the primary nickel back to see if he’s suited for the role.

Steelers vs. Panthers, 2nd quarter, 10:05
Tre Norwood is the slot defender to the bottom of the screen.

That’s not Mike Hilton level run defense, but that’s a dang good job by Norwood to slip the block and get in on the tackle to hold the run to a one-yard gain. While Norwood showed promise, he also showed the lack of polish you would expect in a rookie 7th round pick.

Steelers vs. Panthers, 2nd quarter, 3:13
Tre Norwood is the slot defender to the top of the screen, on the 45> yard line to start the clip.

This looks worse for Norwood than it really was. Isaiahh Loudermilk and Cassius Marsh both lose badly to their blockers, and Robert Spillane going outside to turn the run back inside gets blocked as well. Backside DT Henry Mondeaux and Ulysees Gilbert III, who is also blocked are the only players constricting the run lane, and the back has a lot of room to force a miss. Norwood’s mistake is charging in full speed to hit a point where he expects the runner to be, but the runner has plenty of room, and a slight change of direction leads to a broken tackle and a big game. Norwood needs to be more under control on this play, even if he does a good job evading his own blocker.

Steelers vs. Panthers, 1st quarter, 7:57
Tre Norwood is the slot defender to the top of the screen.

While Norwood wasn’t perfect in coverage, this route shows one of his better traits. He knows he has help over the top to both sides, so if the quarterback leads the receiver deep he has a safety there. getting under the receiver and staying in their pocket forces the quarterback to throw the ball high for an incomplete pass.

Tre Norwood has looked really good for a 7th round rookie. But that doesn’t mean he’s a good fit for the nickel job as a rookie. He’s already the backup free safety, and could be a valuable dime back for the Steelers while he develops. Norwood is a player to watch though, as he could set himself up to take that nickel role in 2022.

One last player needs to be covered in this discussion.

Steelers vs. Panthers, 1st quarter, 11:13
Marcus Allen is the slot defender to the bottom of the screen.

Marcus Allen saved his NFL career by learning to play linebacker. He made the 2020 roster and played the dime linebacker role when Devin Bush was out. In the Steelers last preseason game they had Allen playing the dime back role as a physical slot defender capable of blitzing, defending the run and covering. This play the Panthers saw Allen manned up on receiver DJ Moore and targeted the mismatch. But Allen was up to the challenge of defending a player with consecutive 1100 yard receiving seasons. Allen played a great game against the Panthers, and may have given himself a shot at getting snaps as a slot defender in dime, and possibly in nickel.


The Steelers didn’t have anyone on their initial 53-man roster who has experience playing the nickel back role in the NFL, and no one that fits that role like Mike Hilton did. While that is a big question mark that has led many (including me) to expect the Steelers to pursue a true nickel back before week 1, if they are unable to add a player, they still have options that allow them to defend slot receivers with or without a true nickel back.

To hear a more detailed explanation about the nickel slot position, the history and how the Steelers will deploy the position in 2021, check out my latest “Cutting Room Floor” podcast below: