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Cam Sutton’s return should solidify a glaring weakness for the Steelers

The Steelers reunited with cornerback Cam Sutton this week, announcing a one-year signing for the veteran minimum.

Sutton, who left Pittsburgh in free agency for Detroit after the 2022 season, was available because the Lions cut him following an ugly domestic abuse allegation which saw Sutton evade law enforcement for several weeks before turning himself in. While I don’t mean to sweep that issue under the rug, and its importance is significant from a social perspective, the focus here is on what Sutton adds to the Pittsburgh secondary. Which is, to be brief, a lot.

Sutton’s 2022 season in Pittsburgh was his best as a pro. He had three interceptions, 15 pass break-ups and his PFF rating of 71.8 was the best of his career. The Steelers used him in a variety of roles, playing him both outside and in the slot. He excelled as a slot defender, where his intelligence allowed the Steelers to mix and disguise coverages and to play games with Sutton and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Sutton often lined up in the slot with Fitzpatrick behind him only for the two to switch spots at the snap. That flexibility led to one of the most productive seasons of Fitzpatrick’s career and helped the Steelers tie for the NFL lead with 20 interceptions.

Last season, in Detroit, the Lions asked Sutton to be their top corner. He played almost exclusively outside and often drew the opponent’s best wide receiver. Sutton struggled in that role, unable to hold up against a steady diet of players like Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb, Mike Evans and Puka Nakua. His PFF rating plunged to 53.6 and he was considered a disappointment in an otherwise stellar season for Detroit.

Those who may be scared off by that previous paragraph should rest easy. The Steelers will not require Sutton to take on that responsibility. They have a legitimate #1 corner in Joey Porter Jr. who is both willing and capable of defending the league’s top wideouts. Opposite Porter, they acquired a steady veteran in ex-Carolina Panther Donte Jackson, who should be a solid #2. The Steelers are inexperienced behind Porter and Jackson, with 2023 7th Round draft pick Cory Trice the likely primary backup. It’s possible Sutton could see reps on the outside should Porter or Jackson go down. He will not, however, be asked to cover elite receivers on a regular basis like he was in Detroit.

Sutton’s real value will be seen in his ability to bolster Pittsburgh’s most glaring weakness on defense. The Steelers were preparing a Pupu platter of journeymen and longshots to man the valuable role of slot corner. Given the team’s heavy use of sub-packages, a fifth defensive back is on the field about 60% of the time. Players like Josiah Scott and Beanie Bishop were being mentioned for the role, while a reunion with Patrick Peterson was on the table as well. But Scott and Bishop are untested players while Peterson is 33 years old and has left his best football behind him. None of those options seemed like solid fixes.

Sutton’s entrance remedies those concerns. At 29 years of age, Sutton still has some good football left in him. He can play on run downs as well as on pass downs, can cover receivers, tight ends and running backs, is a willing if not spectacular tackler, and while he’s unlikely to make anyone forget Mike Hilton as a blitzer, he can be useful in that capacity. His most valuable trait may be his understanding of schemes and coverages and his familiarity with Fitzpatrick. The way those two were used to play cat-and-mouse with opposing quarterbacks is something the Steelers missed last season. By rotating Sutton from the slot into a deep third or deep half at the snap, the Steelers once again have the freedom to get creative with Fitzpatrick, where he can be dynamic. That creativity, and the freedom it provides defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, may be the most important aspect of Sutton’s return.

Sutton is likely to be a motivated player as well, grateful to Mike Tomlin for giving him an opportunity amidst his legal troubles and eager to redeem himself with his play on the field. That play may be delayed if the league takes disciplinary action and suspends him. We will have to let that process play out before commenting further. In the bigger picture, the reunion between Sutton and the Steelers should be mutually beneficial.

For my video breakdown of how Sutton can help the Pittsburgh defense, check out the player below to our SCN YouTube channel:


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