The Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 offseason is underway. As the team looks at it’s potentially departing players due to impending free agency, some players may be returning while others will test the market. To get a better idea as to how the Steelers mighjt be looking, we’re going to dive into several of the free agents starting with ones who played the most in 2022. First up will be Cam Sutton. This is the subject for this week’s Steelers Vertex.
Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.
Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.
Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.
Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.
The Stats Line:
Steelers cornerback Cam Sutton had career highs in several key statistics in 2022. Drafted in the third round of the 2017 NFL draft, Sutton spent the last two seasons as a full-time starter in the Steelers secondary. Although his 43 tackles this season is behind his 52 tackles of 2021, Sutton had career highs with three interceptions and 15 passes defensed. Sudden also saw the lowest completion percentage against him in his career at 47.9% according to Pro Football Reference. Sutton was targeted 73 times in 2022 with only 35 completions.
For the season, Cam Sutton played 931 defensive snaps which was more than 150 fewer snaps than he played in 2021. Only playing 54% of the team’s snaps in Week 5 due to injury, Sutton also missed the Steelers Week 6 matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a groin and hamstring injury. Returning in Week 7 against the Miami Dolphins where he played 50% of the snaps, Sutton did not miss another defensive snap for the rest of the season.
Another important number when it comes to Cam Sutton is his current contract status. Although he will be a free agent, Sutton is the only player remaining signed from the 2021 offseason where the Steelers used void years in their contracts. Sutton still has $2.1 million of his contract that has not been accounted for on the salary cap. According to overthecap.com, Sutton’s contract voids and all the remaining money will be due on the 2023 salary cap. But if Sutton signs another deal with the Steelers, the money will stay spread out over the three years remaining on the contract with $700k per season. If the Steelers are interested in keeping this money spread out, signing a new deal was Sutton would be well-served to happen before this date.
Yet another way to look at things is how the Steelers pass defense as a whole operated this past season with Cam Sutton as a key figure. The Steelers finished the 2022 season ranked 19th in passing yards surrendered, but were 4th in the NFL over their final nine games. They gave up 100 receiving yards to seven different wide receivers this season with only one, Tee Higgins, coming after their bye week.
Although the Steelers faced 13 of the 22 NFL wide receivers who had at least 1,000 yards receiving in 2022, only four of them they saw in the second half of the season while it was 11 over the first eight games (Tee Higgins and Amari Cooper they faced in both halves of the season, and Ja’Marr Chase did not play in Week 11). So the task of covering top wide receivers wasn’t as daunting at the end of the season, but the NFL’s third leading receiver in Davante Adams was held to two receptions for 15 yards.
So they are the numbers with Cam Sutton. What does the film have to say?
The Film Line:
Cameron Sutton gained notoriety in 2019 as a dime back who excelled in zone coverage, especially deep zone coverage, and the Steelers still put him in the coverages he excelled in then whenever they can.
Steelers vs. Raiders, 4th quarter, 0:36
Cameron Sutton (#20) is the deepest defender below the hash marks.
The game-sealing interception in Week 16 has Cameron Sutton playing a dime back role and dropping into deep zone coverage, in this case in a Tampa-2 style coverage that has Minkah Fitzpatrick playing like a deep linebacker.
The Raiders have the right route to beat this coverage with an outside release heading to attack the middle of the field beyond Fitzpatrick. The throw drifts outside and Cameron Sutton is there to make the play.
You can see Sutton adjust his drop, flipping his hips when neither receiver heads toward the sideline. His reactions throughout the play set him up with an opportunity to make this play, and he has the ball skills to finish the play and close out the game.
With Sutton starting games and spending most of his snaps as an outside corner, it’s cool to see the Steelers still getting him into this role that is still the one he is best at.
Steelers vs. Eagles, 1st quarter, 0:46
Cameron Sutton (#20) is the cornerback farthest to the top of the screen.
Here you can see Sutton using good body positioning and ball skills he shows in zone coverage in man coverage. He doesn’t physically interfere with the receiver’s route, he plays the ball. It’s important to note this ball was thrown early due to the pressure, and that mistake lets Sutton get hands on the ball.
Steelers @ Bengals, 2nd quarter, 5:33
Cameron Sutton (#20) is the corner farthest to the top of the screen.
Another man defense play, but Sutton’s awareness and zone skills are the exact skills he needs to make a play on this ball that wasn’t thrown to his man. He has great timing for his jumps and high points the ball better than a lot of receivers.
Steelers vs. Eagles, 1st quarter, 11:37
Cameron Sutton (#20) is the cornerback.
Here the Eagles have a serious mismatch in size and physicality, but Cameron Sutton makes this play with great change of direction that is weaponized with terrific footwork. It allows him the timing to make this play on the ball and deny a first down.
Steelers @ Bengals, 2nd quarter, 5:33
Cameron Sutton (#20) is the slot corner.
This angle really shows how well Cameron Sutton maximizes his speed and increases his range with his economy of motion. Sutton isn’t the most athletic player but he’s able to undercut this route and catch this ball at the limit of his reach.
This is Cameron Sutton, a player who has great awareness and ball skills, who has worked on their craft and has high end footwork and body control to maximize his physical abilities. But Cameron Sutton is also a player who isn’t going to win with physicality. Look at these clips, Sutton isn’t engaging any of these receivers with physicality. He’s not forcing them out of their routes or controlling what ground he is giving them. He’s letting them run their route and following them, looking to attack the ball instead of the route.
Steelers vs. Eagles, 2nd quarter, 6:49
Cameron Sutton (#20) is the corner farthest to the bottom of the screen.
DaVonta Smith fakes the inside route before cutting outside, and Cameron Sutton hits the ground. He recovers to make the tackle, but truly elite change of direction and quickness guys will get the better of Cameron Sutton.
Steelers @ Browns, 4th quarter, 15:00
Cameron Sutton (#20) is the corner to the bottom of the screen.
Amari Cooper is a great route runner. He gets himself into Sutton’s blind spot as Sutton runs to stay ahead of Cooper, so Sutton is a split-second late reacting to Cooper’s cut inside. At that point you can see the difference in speed between the receivers as Cooper pulls away from Sutton.
Cameron Sutton can’t run with the truly elite speed receivers and struggles with the high-end change of direction guys as well.
With his lack of physicality, he doesn’t engage the receiver and slow down the route either. this is a 3rd and 1 play, the Browns know the Steelers will be loading the box and they have Cooper in single coverage without deep safety help. They go after Sutton because they know he won’t be able to stay with Cooper.
Cameron Sutton is a valuable corner in a lot of schemes, and the only thing that really gives him trouble is receivers who have high-end speed and quickness. Joe Haden had the same speed limitations Sutton has, but Haden excelled at physically altering and limiting receiver’s routes and keeping them from getting to their full speed. Sutton’s lack of physicality eliminates that option for him, and relegates him to being a great #2 cornerback who isn’t as well-equipped to cover top-tier athletes on his own.
So where does that leave Cam Sutton with the 2023 Steelers? Should he be brought back at the salary he would likely command on the open market to be more of a #1 cornerback?
With the pass defense coming on strong in the second half, the Steelers might want to roll the same philosophy back this coming season. Whether or not they do that with the same personnel or change it up remains to be seen. Or the Steelers could change up their philosophy and hope to bring in a lock-down, physical cornerback. How they handle Cam Sutton in the coming weeks may tell a lot as to what they want to do in 2023.