Steelers secondary focused on versatility
PITTSBURGH — The nameplate over Cam Sutton’s locker isn’t actually a plate at all. It’s a yellow sheet of paper with his number, his last name and his position written in black marker.
The position part says only “defensive back.” Not cornerback. Not safety. Not slot corner or dime back. Maybe it’s fitting. When the Steelers met with Sutton after taking him in the third round of the draft, they didn’t outline a specific role for him. That’s just fine by Sutton.
“(We’re) kind of just keeping it open minded,” Sutton said. “Not just labeling yourself. … You’re a DB, you can play any position. That’s the mentality.”
One that’s common across a secondary whose development could be the difference between the AFC North champions chasing down New England or spending the first weekend in February watching the Super Bowl on TV instead of playing in it. The group was exposed during a 37-16 AFC title game loss to Tom Brady and the Patriots eight months ago, when Brady threw for 383 yards and three touchdowns.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin hinted at a more physical, aggressive approach this season. And the front office delivered by throwing young bodies at the problem, particularly ones who can be moved around as defensive coordinator Keith Butler and secondary coach Carnell Lake see fit.
Sutton spent most of his career at Tennessee at corner but was morphing into a hybrid role before an injury derailed him. He impressed at the Senior Bowl by willingly — and impressively — switching back and forth between both spots. Now on the job a full three months, Sutton still has no idea how the team plans to use him. He’s hardly complaining, particularly after being limited during camp with a right hamstring injury.
“Just whatever,” said Sutton, who expects to play extensively in the preseason finale on Thursday against Carolina. “I can just take all the special team reps (too). It wouldn’t matter to me.”
Like they did with Sutton, the Steelers gave Mike Hilton no specific outline on his official duties when he joined the team’s practice squad last December. Unlike Sutton, Hilton arrived at training camp with no guarantees he’d be on the roster when it is trimmed from 90 to 53. Yet Hilton figures to stick around anyway, thanks in large part to his versatility and his productivity.
At 5-foot-9 and 184 pounds, Hilton is the right size to line up in the slot. Yet he’s also strong enough to be effective at safety, and his willingness to do the dirty work on special teams hasn’t gone unnoticed. He recovered a fumbled punt, collected a sack and broke up a pass in the preseason opener against the New York Giants, and the momentum has hardly slowed.
Wherever he’s lined up, he’s proven effective. Learning the ins and outs of three different positions at the NFL level isn’t exactly easy homework. Yet Hilton understands it was his best chance at making the team.
“You can take up some spots and make them feel comfortable moving you to a different spot than just bringing in a whole other guy to learn a whole new system,” Hilton said. “I feel like that’ll help me out a lot.”
If he needs inspiration, he need only look around the room during position meetings. Veteran William Gay has spent a decade in the NFL shuttling between cornerback and nickelback and is now experimenting a bit at safety. Sean Davis spent some time at nickel last fall before going back to safety. Mike Mitchell has flipped safety positions during his time in Pittsburgh. Ross Cockrell and Coty Sensabaugh both began their careers elsewhere before finding a home with the Steelers.
“They’re known to play a lot of guys that, say, they found off the street or just late-round picks or something like that,” Hilton said. “I just came in and made the best out of my opportunity.”
Sensabaugh has, too. Tomlin has seen enough during camp to turn the starting corner spot opposite Artie Burns into a two-man race between Sensabaugh and Cockrell. Sensabaugh isn’t afraid to play press coverage at the line of scrimmage, an area Tomlin cited needed serious improvement going into 2017.
Despite the near-constant mixing and matching during the preseason, there are no concerns about a potential lack of chemistry. Having so many new faces and so many undefined roles has forced the group to focus on communicating and learning the tendencies at every position. The matchups may look one-on-one, but the Steelers understand they work as a collective.
“You want to know what everyone else is doing out there on the field,” Sutton said. “You never know, might have instances where you might have to play (elsewhere).”