One of the big questions for the Pittsburgh Steelers entering the 2021 season is how they are going to replace cornerbacks Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton, as Nelson was released in a cost-savings measure in March and Hilton signed with the Cincinnati Bengals in free agency. This week’s mandatory minicamp is providing clues in terms of how the Steelers hope to deploy the cornerbacks who remain on the roster and have an opportunity to step into greater roles.
One of the corners who made a big impression on Wednesday was second-year player James Pierre, who intercepted two Ben Roethlisberger passes—one on a sideline throw and one during a two-minute drill, after a fake spike.
After practice, Roethlisberger complimented Pierre on his efforts, this according to Brian Batko of Post-Gazette Sports.
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Teryl Austin: ‘I’m Hoping We Have Found Ourselves a Nice, Big Corner’
Roethlisberger isn’t the only one who seems to appreciate Pierre’s game. Special teams coordinator Danny Smith and secondary coach Teryl Austin have both had positive things to say about the Florida Atlantic product, who made the team’s roster out of training camp last year, despite being an undrafted free agent.
Austin told Batko, “I think there will be a big jump with him. I’m hoping we have all of a sudden found ourselves a nice, big corner for the future,” making reference to the fact that Pierre is 6-foot-2, albeit only 185 pounds.
After practice on Wednesday, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was asked about Pierre’s development.
“He’s one of those second-year guys that we all have high expectations for,” said Tomlin. “It’s reasonable when you have been around a guy who has been in the program and understands what to expect—what’s needed of him physically, what’s needed of him mentally and so forth—I think we are looking for all of those second-year players who have gained experience. And that guy gained a lot of experience last year. He didn’t play a lot of defense, but he had a helmet on every week, he was preparing every week, he was a critical component of our special teams unit and that usually is an indication that a guy is ready to proceed and advance and it is reasonable to expect him to do so.”
To that end, Pierre says the coaches instructed him to focus on three things this offseason:
“Just basically keeping my weight up, staying in shape and catching the ball,” offered Pierre. “Coach just told me to catch the ball—catch a hundred balls a day,” which he has apparently been doing.
If Pierre turns out to be starter-capable, it would provide the Steelers with more flexibility in terms of how they deploy veteran Cameron Sutton, who is capable of playing either outside or in the slot.
Antoine Brooks Jr. Being Auditioned at Slot Corner
Speaking of slot cornerback, one of the players who is getting a look there is second-year man Antoine Brooks Jr., who came to the Steelers in the sixth round of the 2020 NFL Draft out of Maryland. Brooks appeared in just four games as a rookie, but he is being given an opportunity at slot cornerback, despite the fact that he is listed as a safety.
“He played the slot for us some last year in regular season football games when Mike Hilton missed a block of time, once specifically here at home he probably played 25-plus snaps,” offered Tomlin on Wednesday. “His college resume indicates that he has abilities in that area. We have worked him there in the past. He has had some success. He’ll be given an opportunity to continue to grow and develop and display those skills. We’ll determine, when we get closer to action, how we divide the labor and who does what but he’s done a good job with that thus far,” concluded Tomlin.
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