PITTSBURGH — The Steelers have to rely on young players at the cornerback position this season after the departures of Mike Hilton and Steven Nelson. The two key guys in this regard with experience are James Pierre and Justin Layne. Both playing some in dime packages in 2020, Pierre and Layne are expected to step up and give the Steelers quality reps.
The Steelers and Teryl Austin seem to be excited about the potential for both players to step up in a big way this season. With Joe Haden and Cam Sutton the only certain things, Austin takes solace in having what he believes are two quality NFL players.
“I think ability-wise that James and J Layne are guys I know for sure have the ability to play at this level,” Austin said. “They can play in this league and be quality players. It just depends on how fast and how far they progress in the next four or five weeks.”
Austin heaped the praise onto Pierre for his standout rookie season as an undrafted free agent. Pierre has helped set the bar for what Austin is looking for in undrafted free agents this season.
“Last year, James did a great job because we had no camp and no offseason,” Austin said. “We show up, and it’s kind of like ‘hey, nice to meet you’ on the first day. He ended up being a pretty good contributor for us on special teams and ended up doing a pretty solid job on defense towards the end of the year.”
In particular, Austin praised Pierre’s ability in all facets of football. On Tuesday, Mike Tomlin said the Steelers got ‘varsity’ gunner play out of Pierre in 2020. Austin is hoping he can build on that.
“He’s big, he’s long, he runs. I think the biggest thing that stood out with James from last year was how hard he competed, his interest in, ‘what can I do to get better?’ and taking what he was told and applying it,” Austin said. “That was really unique for a young guy, especially with no offseason.”
Austin shared a few candid conversations he had with Pierre about making the roster. He knew Pierre would not crack the roster as a strict cornerback, but that he could do so on special teams.
“I know he’s sat down with me a couple times, and I’ve said, ‘James, listen. You’re not going to make this team as a corner right off the bat,” Austin said. “You’re going to make this team because you do great on special teams, so you better be Danny’s best friend. Then, work on your craft as a DB, because you’ll have an opportunity to work on it while you’re being a good special teams player, and he did that.”
While Austin knows nothing is finished with Pierre, both he and Tomlin are hoping that this is Pierre’s time to take a big leap and become a potential future cornerstone of the defense.
“He’s still developing. This is his first offseason and I think there’ll be a big jump with him,” Austin said. “I’m hoping we’ve all of a sudden found ourselves a big corner for the future.”
Based on his special teams play, Tomlin is hoping the same as Austin as he believes Pierre is on an upward trajectory.
“Often times, when you have that level of consistency and performance in a special teams area, it’s often an indication of advancement or maturity and growth opportunity in the other phases as well,” Tomlin said. “I think over the course of my time here, the young guys that are consistent and perform in that area usually ascend within the offensive or defensive unit and so it’s reasonable to expect him to do that.”
Pierre only logged 30 defensive snaps in 2020. His pass breakup of Rishard Higgins in the Steelers wild card game playoff loss to the Cleveland Browns is his most notable highlight. If he can step up is one of the biggest questions of the Steelers offseason. Still, it seems the team is very enthralled by what Pierre brings to the table. The signs of a breakthrough for that leap came on Wednesday. Pierre picked off Ben Roethlisberger twice, to which the future Hall of Famer gave Pierre some confidence.
“It’s precious to get a pick off of Ben,” Pierre said. “Watching him last year, it’s not easy to get those off of Ben. He’s throwing them away from people. After practice, he came up to me and said ‘good job’ then gave me a fist bump. It builds up my confidence, but I was really excited about the reaction of those around me.”
The two interception day comes off the heels of a day where Pierre said he gave up a significant catch on Tuesday. Doing so motivated him to come back better on Wednesday.
“I was just a bit on myself for letting someone catch the ball yesterday,” Pierre said. “Today, I woke up earlier than I usually do and attacked the day with the right mindset.”
While the effusive praise has been loud to everyone else, Pierre has not heard much of it all. He’s simply going to put his head down and work.
“Coaches don’t tell me anything,” Pierre said. “It’s not their job to tell the player. I just have to work. I don’t know what they’re talking about. I’m just working every day to get better. I’m leaning on older guys to learn.”
Pierre’s impressive day only caps off what has been an offseason of opportunity for him. While he says he’s learning and putting his head down to work, he may soon see the goals he set out for come true. With so much uncertainty around the Steelers cornerback room, the team clearly believes Pierre is a bright spot.