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How desperate is the Steelers need to upgrade at cornerback?

With cornerback a possible position to be taken high by the Steelers in the 2023 NFL draft, how urgent is it to spend a high pick on the position?

Syndication: Beaver County Times Michael Longo/For USA Today Network / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 league year is well underway. With the 2023 NFL draft a mere hours away, we’re going to look at another position the Steelers could take with their first selection and see how things looked last season. This time it’s the cornerback position. 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:

In looking at the Steelers cornerback position for 2023, the Steelers have a lot more players ready and available than what may be let on by others. Thinking there’s a need at the cornerback position isn’t about not having options, it would merely be more of an upgrade at the position.

Last season Cam Sutton led the way for the Steelers in snaps at the cornerback position with 931. But the apparent one-for-one replacement for Sutton in Patrick Peterson played 1,105 snaps for the Vikings last season. Looking to fill out the rest of the playing time for the Steelers at the position was Levi Wallace with 709 snaps followed by Arthur Maulet with 481 defensive snaps. Other players who saw action at cornerback were James Pierre with 260 snaps and Ahkello Witherspoon with 248.

Other than the Patrick Peterson for Cam Sutton substitution, all other players who had more than 100 snaps at cornerback for the Steelers last year are still on the roster for 2023. The other two cornerbacks were players who were on the practice squad before moving up with Josh Jackson having 85 snaps and Quincy Wilson having 11.

When it came to the Steelers defensive production from cornerbacks last year, Levi Wallace led the way in interceptions with four along with 13 passes defensed in 15 games. Cam Sutton was next in line with three interceptions and had 15 passes defensed in 16 games. Arthur Maulet, James Pierre, and Ahkello Witherspoon all had one interception and had three, four, and two passes defensed respectively. It should be noted that Witherspoon‘s came in only four games while both Maulet and Pierre appeared in 17.

As for Patrick Peterson, his 2022 season saw five interceptions with 15 passes defensed and 17 games.

Last season, the Steelers were tied with the San Francisco 49ers for the most interceptions in the NFL during the regular season what’s 20. Of those interceptions, half came from the Steelers cornerbacks. Minkah Fitzpatrick led the NFL with six interceptions while Damontae Kazee and T.J. Watt each added two more.

So with the Steelers returning all but one of their cornerbacks and adding a veteran in his place, how desperate do they need to have another cornerback taken high in this year‘s draft? Maybe the film can help answer the question.

The Film Line:

The Steelers top two corners currently on the roster are Patrick Peterson and Levi Wallace. If a rookie is added, that corner is going to play with those two, not replace them. So let’s look at the players that will lose a lot of snaps if the Steelers do draft a cornerback, and first off is nickelback Arthur Maulet.

Steelers vs. Buccaneers, 3rd quarter, 4:14

Arthur Maulet (#35) is the defender on the very edge of the right side of the screen.

The nickelback position is part cornerback, part linebacker, and Arthur Maulet is at his best when he’s playing more like a linebacker. Here Maulet drives the receiver trying to block him all the way into the offensive line before peeling off to find the ball and help make a tackle for no gain. Now Maulet isn’t going to pull a Mike Hilton and win matchups with offensive lineman semi-regularly, but he’s more than a match for receivers that try to block him.

Steelers vs. Bengals, Overtime, 1:34

Arthur Maulet (#35) is on the line, farthest to the bottom of the screen.

Maulet does a good job getting to the ball when he’s a free rusher on blitzes too. The play before this one Maulet chased Burrow out of the pocket and forced a throw away, on this play he sacks Burrow and strips the football, Bengals recover but it’s fourth down and they would punt to the Steelers for the game-winning drive.

Steelers vs. Buccaneers, 3rd quarter, 11:35

Arthur Maulet (#35) is the slot defender to the bottom of the screen.

Maulet does a good Terrell Edmunds impression here, staying with the receiver to make the throw a tough one, but is unable to find the ball despite good position and the catch is made.

Maulet isn’t the player you want out there in every situation. He’s much better suited to facing teams that run a lot out of the slot, and like Mike Hilton before him, it was common to see him blitz and Terrell Edmunds cover his man when it was a rougher matchup for Maulet. The Steelers have used numerous players in the slot since Hilton left, and Austin is perfectly capable of using Maulet in favorable matchups and protecting him against teams with shiftier slot receivers.

In those situations there are a couple options on the Steelers right now that could see time on the field.

Steelers vs. Buccaneers, 2nd quarter, 2:57

James Pierre (#42) is the defender farthest to the bottom of the screen.

Patrick Peterson has talked about being used in more positions than just outside, and he could move into the slot when facing heavier passing offenses and situations. In those situations, James Pierre is an option to come in and play outside, like he did last season when Cameron Sutton would move into the slot. Here Pierre shows off his short-area quickness and change of direction getting to the ball on this in-route.

Steelers vs. Colts, 1st quarter, 9:16

James Pierre (#42) is the defender to the very bottom of the screen.

Pierre is at his best when he’s in a cover-2 style defense when he has help on any deep route and can be physical and aggressive. He shows his physicality here, recovering quickly from the receivers initial shove and staying right with him, but he also shows great awareness and reaction time to see the throw coming and get to it. The Steelers seem to be leaning more on cover-2 and cover-5 (two deep safeties and man in front of it) and those are both coverages that James Pierre is very good in.

Steelers vs. Bengals, 4th quarter, 8:23

Akhello Witherspoon (#25) is the slot defender second from the bottom of the screen.

Akhello Witherspoon was an incredible addition to the 2021 Steelers, coming on strong at the end of the season and giving many hope he would finally turn the corner and be the starter everyone thought he could be when he was drafted.

However, just like every other time a team has put the expectations and responsibilities of a starting corner on Witherspoon, he folded pretty quickly and lost his role on the field in only a few weeks. But he’s still on the roster and has consistently shown a knack for playing well when no one expects anything from him and his role is easier. If the Steelers want a man-coverage specialist to take on faster receivers in both short and deep routes, Akhello Witherspoon is great in that role. I would not be surprised to see Witherspoon have a bounce-back season in a less demanding role.

The Point:

It’s clear that the Steelers don’t have a true #3 corner right now, and it is likely that they will address that in the draft. But if the draft doesn’t cooperate, they have players that can, as a group, fill that role. They aren’t the players you dream of in that role, but that’s not the point right now. The point is if the draft offers the Steelers much better bang for their buck at different positions, they can still have good secondary play with the guys currently on the roster.