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How can Chandon Sullivan be utilized best in the Steelers secondary?

The Steelers added another slot cornerback via free agency on draft weekend. So how does he fit in the defensive backfield?

NFL: DEC 04 Jets at Vikings Photo by Bailey Hillesheim/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 league year is well underway. With the 2023 NFL draft now behind us, there are plenty of new players to discuss. But on draft weekend, the Steelers also added a free agent to the cornerback room. So how can Chandon Sullivan be utilized best in the Steelers secondary? 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:

As an undrafted free agent in 2018, Chandon Sullivan was on and off the Philadelphia Eagles practice squad throughout the year and ultimately appeared in five games with one start. Surrendering six completions on the seven times he was targeted, Sullivan was credited with seven tackles and that was it for statistics in Philadelphia. Released follow the 2019 draft, Green Bay wasted no time in picking up Sullivan.

Over the next three seasons, Sullivan appeared in every game for the Packers. In 2019 he had one interception and only surrendered 11 completions on 31 targets as well as having 30 tackles and six passes defensed. In his second year in Green Bay in 2020, Sullivan had 10 starts and had an interception which was returned for a touchdown as well as six more passes defensed and 41 tackles. But the 2020 season saw Sullivan targeted much more often as he surrendered 31 completions on 56 targets and surrendered two touchdowns according to Pro Football Reference (PFR).

In 2021 Sullivan appeared in all 17 games with 10 more starts and had three interceptions for the Packers along with four passes defensed and 31 tackles. Seeing action in the passing game, Sullivan surrendered 44 completions on 67 targets and was credited with giving up four touchdowns.

Moving to Minnesota in 2022, Sullivan once again appeared in all 17 games and had 10 starts. Although this time Sullivan did not have any interceptions but had a career high of seven passes defensed as well as a fumble recovery. Sullivan also had a career high in tackles with 60 but was targeted 72 times in coverage with 51 completions and one touchdown surrendered.

Where things get interesting is looking at Sullivan‘s missed tackles over the years. Speaking with Geoffrey during the draft, we found that the reports varied immensely when it came to Sullivan and his missed tackles. Sticking with my go-to source for statistics in PFR, Sullivan was only credited with three missed tackles last year which gave him only a 4.8% missed tackle rate. Sullivan’s finally year in Green Bay was where he saw a career-high six missed tackles with a 16.2% missed tackle rate.

One last thing when it comes to Sullivan is his defensive alignment. In 2022 Sullivan lined up in the slot 88% of his snaps according to Pro Football Focus. In 2021 with the Packers, Sullivan played 80% of his snaps in the slot with 12.6% coming in the box.

That’s more than enough numbers. I’d rather watch film to get more of the story.

The Film Line:

Chandon Sullivan joins the Pittsburgh Steelers after playing for the Packers and Vikings, both of whom were zone-heavy defenses while he was there.

Chandon Sullivan (#39) is the slot corner to the top of the screen.

Sullivan does a good job reading the flow of plays and spacing, and here it puts him in position to get hands on the ball. He doesn’t convert the turnover but it still brings up 4th down.

Chandon Sullivan (#39) is the slot corner to the bottom of the screen (right behind the DE).

Sullivan keeps his eyes on the quarterback while carrying the first receiver deep, then passes him off and comes down to take away the short option as the quarterback scrambles. Sullivan navigates plays smartly, but you can see at the end of the play he doesn’t have great quickness and doesn’t get to the ball carrier.

Chandon Sullivan (#39) is the slot corner to the bottom of the screen.

He doesn’t have great quickness, but here Sullivan keeps in front of Tyreek Hill forty yards downfield. Hill is obviously faster, but not enough to really matter. It really stands out when Hill hits the <45 yard line and accelerates to try and catch up to the ball. Sullivan isn’t quick, but he also isn’t slow. That’s one reason he plays a lot of off-coverage and zone. As long as he has a cushion to offset his slower acceleration he can run with fast receivers.

Chandon Sullivan (#39) is the slot corner to the bottom of the screen.

Giving a big cushion will lead to these underneath passes. This is a third and long, so being cautious when attacking the catch is warranted, but you also see Sullivan’s slower change of direction and acceleration.

Chandon Sullivan (#39) is the corner to the top of the screen nearest to the line of scrimmage.

When he is up on the line, Sullivan isn’t going to be carrying the deep receiver and he’s going to be physical. Here Sullivan is messing up the route and when the ball is still caught, he denies the receiver any extra yards, yards that were needed to convert this into a first down.

This play also shows how Sullivan can play the ball, or the receiver, but doesn’t do both at the same time. When he’s covering space he will get to the ball if it is in his range. While when he’s covering a receiver he will disrupt the route and tackle, but rarely make a play on the ball.

In fact, a pretty good percentage of his pass break ups aren’t in coverage at all.

Chandon Sullivan (#39) is the slot corner to the top of the screen.

Sullivan doesn’t get a ton of pass defenses in any season, and he always has two to three of these. Sullivan has long arms and his best athletic testing was his jumping. That with his good awareness for spacing makes him far more likely to disrupt a hot route than get to the quarterback when he rushes.

Chandon Sullivan (#39) is the slot corner to the bottom of the screen.

Rushing the quarterback isn’t the only reason to send your nickelback on a blitz. Sullivan does a good job here, taking a good angle to shut down anything outside, laterally cutting down the runner’s angle and making the tackle.

Chandon Sullivan (#39) is the slot corner to the left side of the screen.

I really like this play, Sullivan has a great knack for cutting down angles from the outside, and you can see how his movement keeps adjusting to the situation to deal with changing threats from the back. He does a good job bringing down back in these situations too.

Chandon Sullivan (#39) is the slot corner to the top of the screen.

One thing he doesn’t show a lot of awareness of is blocking. Sullivan cuts off the vertical angles first, but can’t slide out to meet the back because his blocker is coming from the outside. He’s not a linebacker, he’s a smart defensive back that can tackle.

The Point:

Chandon Sullivan doesn’t have great quickness, and he isn’t going to be a playmaker. He is a smart and reliable option in nickel or dime who can play several roles in those defenses. He gives the Steelers another slot option that can blitz and tackle, but shouldn’t be relied upon too much in man coverage. That isn’t an issue in dime, where the Steelers are very zone heavy and have a very good scheme. The question still lingers of who is going to be the primary nickelback, and that looks to be a major competition point for Steelers training camp.