Should Steelers backup cornerbacks audition for bigger roles on defense?

The Pittsburgh Steelers got some surprisingly good play out of their backup cornerbacks. Should they be given a shot at a bigger role moving forward?

I don’t think anyone could have expected the defensive performance from the Pittsburgh Steelers that we witnessed against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 6. Sitting at 1-4 with their backs against the wall, Mike Tomlin’s team came out swinging and figuratively delivered a knockout blow to Tom Brady and company.

In this showing against a competent offense, the Steelers allowed just 243 passing yards on only 6.1 yards per attempt to go with just 2.9 yards per carry surrendered, via ESPN stats. What’s even more impressive is that they allowed the Buccaneers to convert just 4 of 14 attempts on their down — ultimately resulting in holding Tampa Bay to just 18 points.

Here’s the real kicker: Pittsburgh was able to do all of this without the help of T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Cameron Sutton, Ahkello Witherspoon, and Levi Wallace. The absence of these starters didn’t change the game’s outcome in this one, and the Steelers were able to pull off a huge upset despite being 9.5-point home underdogs.

One of the biggest takeaways from Week 6 was the outstanding play of Pittsburgh’s young backup cornerbacks. James Pierre and Josh Jackson filled in on the outside for Witherspoon and Wallace this week, and the two combined to allow just 48 receiving yards on 11 targets, via advanced stats from Pro Football Reference. Pierre was the most impressive cornerback on the afternoon — surrendering just 15 yards on 8 targets and allowing a 39.6 passer rating.

This impressive play of Steelers cornerbacks certainly turned heads this past week. Meanwhile, Witherspoon, Wallace, and Sutton still nursing back to full health and are expected to resume their roles soon. But did Pittsburgh’s backup cornerbacks do enough to expand their roles moving forward?

Steelers stop-gap CB starters will go back to the bench

The short answer is no. While James Pierre was exceptional against the Buccaneers and Josh Jackson did a quality job himself, these two players are going to go back to very limited roles once Pittsburgh’s three starting cornerbacks are healthy and ready to go. In fact, Jackson could potentially get kicked off the roster or at least be demoted to a game day inactive each week.

As well as these two corners played against the Buccaneers, it’s unlikely Pittsburgh will look to either of them as the answer in the secondary. With Pierre being in his third season with the team, the Steelers have gotten a big enough look at him to know his shortcomings. Though he can handle players like Mike Evans and Chris Godwin on the outside, Pierre isn’t a very good athlete and would not be a good matchup to go against Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle this week.

The same can be said for Josh Jackson. The former Iowa cornerback and second-round draft choice by the Packers in 2018 hasn’t panned out. Before landing on Pittsburgh’s practice squad, he had a short two-game stint with the Chiefs. Though he likely gave the Steelers a reason to be confident in him as a reserve player, he isn’t going to leapfrog anyone on the depth chart unless things go south with the players ahead of him.

I don’t think that Levi Wallace and Ahkello Witherspoon have been exceptional, but the fact of the matter is they probably are the best options this team has outside of Cameron Sutton. James Pierre and Josh Jackson will continue to work on building their resumes every chance they get, but it will likely take more injuries for them to see an increased role on defense in the future.