PITTSBURGH — Did the Steelers come into the offseason trying to find the guy who could fill the void of Arthur Maulet and Mike Hilton of the past? It seems likely as the Steelers have looked on as Chandon Sullivan and Elijah Riley competed for the slot cornerback job. An experienced veteran, Sullivan relies upon that experience to showcase what he can do daily. But Riley is an upstart younger player who has seen the NFL looking to put it all together this year. If the run-up to the regular season indicates anything, Riley could be doing just that.
The Steelers’ slot cornerbacks were one of the biggest questions that remained on the team. But Saturday’s showing helped ease some of those concerns, with Sullivan and Riley catching interceptions. Mike Tomlin heaped praise onto Riley, who is proving what he can as a run-down slot cornerback and a high-level special teamer.
“I think he’s showing that he has been here,” Tomlin said. “And that’s a reasonable expectation, a guy that’s familiar with our environment and familiar with our schematics and so forth. And he could focus his energies on you know, just the play or the quality of the play and he has taken a significant step in terms of productivity in stadium, on defense and in teams and good for him. Good for us.”
Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin felt similarly about Sullivan and Riley. These are two guys who are assimilating themselves nicely into the team and boosting the talent they have around them. Both slot cornerbacks seem to be on the trajectory to make the team.
“I think those guys are both making a case that they belong,” Austin said. “They’ve each made some plays. They’ve each shown improvement, which is what I’m looking for. And they’ve each showed improvement from game one to game two. And so, we’ll see how it plays out here. I think it’s still a tight competition that’s going to go down to the wire, and we’ll see how that shakes out after these three games.”
So, what does Riley, a guy coming out of virtually nowhere off the practice squad, bring to the table? Coming out of Army, West Point shaped Riley into becoming a disciplined, detail-oriented player. That college experience allows Riley to embrace the daily grind of the NFL season. But it goes without saying the benchmarks Riley clears give him more life onto the roster.
First, Riley leads the entire team in special teams tackles this preseason with four. Second, Riley’s timing and processing on slot cornerback blitzes make him a significant threat for any team to watch in the run game. Third, the ballhawk nature of Riley’s game lends itself perfectly to a guy who fits the modern NFL’s ideas of creating turnovers, even if Riley ends up a little feast or famine at times in coverage.
Riley differs from Sullivan because he embraces his special teams’ demon nature. The feistiness and grittiness Riley carries on his shoulder is his best attribute as a player. That chip now bleeds over into his run-down skillset as a slot cornerback, which exemplifies why Riley is in a position to make the 53-man roster.
Add in a touch of versatility since Riley also reps at safety, and Riley has thrown together a perfect storm to make himself indispensable to coaches across three different positions. Tomlin and Austin understand what Riley brings to the table, which is likely why he ends up on the 53-man roster to start the season.