At halftime of the Pittsburgh Steelers matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals, one thing was certain: the massive hole in the secondary left by Joe Haden’s broken fibula suffered against the Indianapolis Colts was being exposed and exploited once again, just as it had been the previous two games.
Coty Sensabaugh, who has found himself matched up against the likes of Jordy Nelson and A.J. Green in the last two weeks, continued to struggle. In the first half against the Bengals, he gave up two touchdowns, falling to the ground on both plays. To be fair to Sensabaugh, Green clearly pushed off on the first, but those are the things cornerbacks are supposed to anticipate and prepare for, especially against big, physical receivers like Green.
Pittsburgh made one huge, unexpected adjustment at halftime that likely thrilled and scared fans and coaches alike: they replaced Sensabaugh with rookie Cam Sutton, who had spent the first ten weeks of the season in the Reserve/Injured list.
It was a move that reeked of desperation and felt like it was destined to cause nightmares for the Steelers’ fans for days to come. Instead, he nearly shut down his side of the field the rest of the night.
I am not going to take a look at the Green touchdown that was called back for a terrible holding penalty against running back Giovanni Bernard. Sutton was the cornerback on that play, but all indications are that he was expecting to bracket Green with free safety Robert Golden, as he got a very slow launch and showed no urgency trying to catch up. Golden, however, bit on the underneath post rather than playing Green’s deep post. It looks, at least, like the mistake there was on Golden.
No, we’re going to look, instead, at a play Sutton made that should give everyone having flashbacks to Artie Burns being eaten alive by the Packers a moment to breathe easy.
Against the Packers, Burns gave up a touchdown on a post/wheel route combo, in which he was supposed to play the deep outside third, where the wheel was going, but instead stayed with the post into the middle zone. It wasn’t the first time it happened against that exact route combo this season, either.
Sutton, though, handled it almost perfectly.
4th Quarter, 3:44 Remaining, 1st & 10, CIN 12
The Bengals lined up in 13 personnel — one running back and three tight ends — in a jumbo Ace set. Only Green is split out from the line, to the offensive left. Bernard is the running back. Two of their tight ends, Ryan Hewitt and Tyler Kroft, are lined up to the offensive left.
Pittsburgh is countering with their base 3-4 defense. Strong safety Sean Davis is playing in the box on the offensive left, while Robert Golden is playing the deep safety on the offensive right.
One thing that jumps out when you watch the entire second half on the All-22 cameras is that the Steelers used Sutton very close to the line of scrimmage on most plays. Hes not a big guy, so he’s not going to play a lot of press-man coverage, where he is tasked with physically redirecting the receiver off the snap. However, they didn’t have him leaving a lot of ten-yard cushions, either. On this particular play, the cushion is just four yards off Green.
Another thing you’ll notice is that Green doesn’t actually run a post route, so it’s not truly a post/wheel combo. However, the first move is a hard break to the inside, so it’s effectively the same thing in this instance. From there, Green continues mostly upfield before ending the route with a curl about 15 yards away. The hard inside move makes Sutton rotate his hips in toward the hash marks, which is the root cause of the only mistake he makes on this play.
At almost the exact same moment Sutton rotates inside, he notices Eiffert leaking toward the sideline, uncovered. He begins his transition to Eiffert, but the rotational momentum he already has means he has to continue rotating inside, then turn all the way around to find the tight end. What keeps that from blowing up this play is that quarterback Andy Dalton only ever looked to Green. Granted, Sutton was close enough that he likely would have either made a play on the ball or made the tackle, had the pass gone to Eiffert. But rotating all the way through to his own right, instead of staying square a beat longer and being able to turn to his own left, did leave a small window into which a quarterback who was paying attention could have made a play. And with Eiffert matched up against the much smaller Sutton, it’s a chance I’d take as a quarterback.
The key here is less about the mechanics of how the play transpired, and more about how a rookie in his first-ever NFL playing time managed to recognize something that has bitten Burns, the Steelers’ 2016 first-round pick and a full-time starter, on multiple occasions this season. It could have been executed better, but the awareness and apparent high football IQ of Sutton is something that has to make Steelers fans a little more comfortable until Haden returns to the field.
This play was largely indicative of how Sutton played Monday night. When the dust finally settled, the stats say Sutton gave up one catch for 16 yards on a sideline catch by Brandon LaFelle. After immediately going straight at Sutton on their first drive of the second half, the Bengals hardly even looked the rookie’s way the rest of the night.
All in all, it was a fine night for any cornerback, let alone one who hadn’t played a defensive snap of any kind in almost a year, and never against an NFL-caliber offense.
Don’t be surprised if Sutton is starting across from Burns when the Steelers return to the field against the Ravens.