The moment you all have been waiting for with bated breath has arrived. I cannot keep my faithful followers waiting any longer. It simply wouldn't be prudent.
As the self-proclaimed and universally recognized President of the James Pierre Fan Club, I am asked quite often on podcasts and comment threads about my thoughts on Pierre's 2021 performance, and his precarious position heading into the 2022 training camp.
The Steelers currently have a Big 3 at cornerback: Levi Wallace, Akhello Witherspoon, and Cameron Sutton. Wallace is the top guy, in my opinion, maybe even the Steelers CB1. Witherspoon is a talented, often inconsistent, coverage corner who lacks the physicality to be adequate in run support. Sutton is the most versatile of the three, able to effectively jump inside to the slot if necessary.
Most pundits, both of the media or fan variety, believe the Steelers have three CB2 at best, but lack a true number one corner. I am not as concerned as most, because I feel that the Steelers haven't had a true CB1 since Ike Taylor hung up his cleats. Joe Haden was close when he first arrived in Pittsburgh, but he was available for a reason. He was no longer a true number one guy.
After the aforementioned trio, the Steelers return a quartet of unproven potential. This area of the depth chart is where James Pierre resides. He is joined by Justin Layne, Arthur Maulet, and Tre Norwood. Although there are other undrafted free agents scattered down the depth chart, these are currently the four returning defensive backs with experience who will quite possibly be competing for three roster spots.
All four gentlemen were on the final roster in 2021, but a new face has emerged with favorable odds to make the 2022 roster. After the Steelers failed to address the secondary in the 2022 NFL Draft, they quickly signed free agent Damontae Kazee. Kazee is primarily a free safety, but he has NFL experience in the slot as well, with the Atlanta Falcons and Dallas Cowboys. Adding Kazee to an already deep group at safety makes Tre Norwood's status rather tentative, at best. However, Norwood's versatility might garner him consideration for a roster spot at corner.
Arthur Maulet is an undersized, hardnosed, strictly slot corner. He was functional in 2021, but nothing more. He is position specific, which makes him extremely vulnerable to the versatility provided by the aforementioned Sutton, Kazee, and Norwood. A little advice from a friend when it comes to accommodations: rent or lease, don't buy.
That would seem to bode well for Pierre and Layne's chances of making the team, but what if the Steelers have already decided it's an either/or situation? Maybe the coaches have already seen enough, and they are intrigued by the potential of some of the undrafted players. If Pierre and Layne are little more than special teams contributors, they could be vulnerable.
Two dogs, one bone. That scenario could very well happen. If so, who has the best odds?
Like everything else with the 2022 Steelers defense, the presence of Brian Flores could play a huge role in personnel decisions. Flores is an ultra aggressive defensive coach, both with the front seven, and the secondary. He is an attack first, ask questions later, kind of guy. That mindset wouldn't seem to be a good fit with the Steelers reverse mullet defensive philosophy of aggressive in the front and safe in the back.
I have to believe Flores was brought on board for a reason, besides another attempt by the Steelers to show how they always try to do the right thing as an organization. I fully comprehend Flores isn't the defensive coordinator, but do you actually believe Mike Tomlin and Teryl Austin didn't contribute big-time to Keith Butler's game plans?
Brian Flores’ fingerprints will be all over the weekly game plan, and his presence felt by all.
James Pierre is getting ready to embark on his third season in the NFL. He has proven to be more junkyard dog at cornerback than purebred. What he lacks in optimal athleticism, he makes up for with tenacity and determination. Pierre is a physical player, and a effective tackler. He is strictly a boundary corner, lacking the quickness for the slot. He is solid in man or zone, but struggles with speed receivers unless he can play aggressive man with help over the top.
Pierre has shown the confidence level of a NFL caliber corner at various times in his young career. He filled in admirably for an injured Joe Haden early in 2021, and played well enough to garner the attention and some faint praise from defensive back coach Austin. That's about when the Steelers soft zone coverages exposed Pierre's weaknesses.
Deep threat receivers Courtland Sutton, Ja'Marr Chase, and Tee Higgins lit him up for long touchdowns, as he was caught in no man's land without help over the top. Those guys burned plenty of corners last year, but the damage was done. Pierre's confidence was shot and he struggled. He lost his spot to Witherspoon, and never got out of the doghouse.
Now for some good news. As I stated earlier, I feel certain that Flores presence and natural aggressiveness will no doubt make an impression on the defense. If the Steelers go aggressive across the board on occasion, as Flores has been prone to do in the past, that bodes well for both Pierre and Layne, two young and talented corners that I feel could benefit with the potential change in defensive philosophy.
So who benefits most from Flores presence, Pierre or Layne? Neither, or maybe both? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comment thread below.