Two Steelers defensive backs will be fighting each other for snaps in 2021

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jaylen Samuels (38) and cornerback James Pierre (42) and safety Jordan Dangerfield (37) and fullback Derek Watt. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jaylen Samuels (38) and cornerback James Pierre (42) and safety Jordan Dangerfield (37) and fullback Derek Watt. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

The Steelers have some players in the secondary who must sort themselves out, but it looks like these two frontrunners will be fighting for snaps in 2021. 

After the loss of both Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton earlier this offseason, one of the biggest questions has been who will fill the void for the Pittsburgh Steelers at the cornerback position in 2021? Unfortunately, we may not have the answer until the team releases their first depth chart of the regular season.

However, that doesn’t mean we are completely in the dark either. Pittsburgh’s kicked off training camp last week, but their first practice open to the public didn’t take place until July 28th at Heinz Field. We learned a lot from this practice and some of the things leading up to it.

When it came to the secondary, most in Pittsburgh’s media thought that it would be a two-way race between Justin Layne and James Pierre to take over a significant role on the defense this season. However, this doesn’t line up with what we have seen so far. While Pierre is certainly in the running for this, Layne hasn’t done nearly as much to impress the coaching staff in the early going.

To the surprise of many, James Pierre’s biggest competition early on appears to be Antoine Brooks – a former safety and 6th-round pick by the Steelers last year. To begin training camp, Pierre has lined up almost solely on the outside and Brooks has been nickel cornerback covering slot receivers. Despite their positional differences, these two young defensive backs are likely fighting for the same snaps in 2021.

How Pierre and Brooks are fighting for snaps on Steelers

How can two players who play different positions be fighting for the same snaps? That’s because the Steelers are unlikely to deploy both at the same time. While it’s possible that James Pierre and Antoine Brooks could see the field together in dime packages, the Steelers run their nickel defense a majority of the time.

If you are unfamiliar with this, the nickel defense for the Steelers includes 4 defensive linemen (2 IDL, 2 EDGE), 2 off-ball linebackers, 3 cornerbacks, and 2 safeties. We already know who will man these positions for the most part, but we don’t know yet how the Steelers are going to deploy their cornerbacks in nickel.

On Pittsburgh’s initial training camp depth chart, the team has Joe Haden and Cameron Sutton as the outside cornerbacks with Brooks as the starting nickel corner. However, this can easily change depending on several factors.

If Brooks doesn’t show enough during training camp or struggles in practice, they could look to Pierre. In addition, Pierre could impress enough to cause the Steelers to deploy a lineup that could be even better for coverage purposes.

Instead of having Brooks as the nickel corner, the team could kick Cameron Sutton inside (a position he is already very familiar with) and play James Pierre as the right outside cornerback with Haden as the left cornerback.

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Of course, there’s always a chance that Justin Layne, Arthur Maulet, or someone else emerges as a strong candidate to have a big role in the secondary this year. However, as of now, it looks like James Pierre and Antoine Brooks will be fighting each other for playing time in 2021. Keep a close eye on them during Steelers training camp.