With the news that Mike Hilton will not be dressed for the Steelers’ Week 7 game against the Tennessee Titans, that means that usual Dime corner Cameron Sutton will be elevated to the Nickel role, one that usually comes with a significant step up in playing time.
Sutton played 46% of the Steelers’ defensive snaps against the Cleveland Browns after Hilton was injured, which was a season high for the fourth-year defensive back.
Though Hilton is not a starter in the strictest sense of the word, he has played nearly as much as anyone else on the defense this season as the Steelers’ base defensive alignment contains just four defensive backs. Coming into the game against Cleveland, he had played at least 62% of the defensive snaps in each game this season and had played 81% against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 6.
“You have to go into the process of next man mentality and the next man step stepping up,” Sutton said this week. “We have guys who are able and capable and ready to fulfill those spots and keep this thing rolling.”
Indeed, Sutton has the experience — over 700 career defensive snaps — and the versatility to play a somewhat different position. The Nickel corner plays on more running downs and is asked to pass-rush more often, which is why Hilton is one of the Steelers’ leaders in tackles for a loss. Sutton has played both spots in the past, as well as free safety and outside corner, making him one of the Steelers’ most versatile defenders, something he takes pride in.
“It’s just well-rounding your game, not being a guy that’s just limiting his opportunities to just playing one position,” he said. “I’m just creating havoc. It’s opportunities for yourself to put yourself in situations to be around the ball and find ways to change outcomes of games. So I think that’s very important.”
Following Sutton’s move from Dime to Nickel, Justin Layne filled in for the Steelers in their six-defensive back alignment, getting the first defensive snaps of his two-year career. Unlike Sutton, who has plenty of experience, Layne is a relative neophyte. But the Steelers’ Dime package probably won’t be pressed into frequent service against Tennessee.
No Titans wide receiver has played more than 50% of the team’s snaps this season, with A.J. Brown checking in at 49%. Corey Davis and Adam Humphries draw in behind, but second tight end Anthony Frisker has been used more than fourth receiver Kalif Raymond, who has played only 34% of the team’s snaps this season.
“To be quite honest with you, Tennessee is not in a lot of sub-package personnel grouping,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said on Tuesday, “I don’t know what Mike [Hilton’s] role might be in this environment this week. They play old-school style football and I don’t know how much sub-package ball we will be playing on non-possession downs. That remains to be seen.”
NFL Insider John Clayton: Steelers Out of Running for J.J. Watt
One of the league’s most prominent insiders believes the Steelers are out of the running for free agent defensive end J.J. Watt.
Joining The PM Team on 93.7 The Fan on Wednesday, NFL insider John Clayton said Watt will not be joining his brothers T.J. and Derek in Pittsburgh.
Clayton sees the Tennessee Titans, Green Bay Packers and Buffalo Bills as the favorites to land Watt’s services.
For a potential dark horse, Clayton says the Las Vegas Raiders as an outside-the-box candidate to sign the veteran pass rusher.
.@JohnClaytonNFL says JJ Watt won't be coming to Pittsburgh. Tennessee, Green Bay, and Buffalo are the 3 teams. Raiders as a dark horse.— Andrew Fillipponi (@ThePoniExpress) February 24, 2021
Watt leaves Houston as one of the greatest players in franchise history. He was selected to five Pro Bowls, named First-Team All-Pro on five occasions and earned three NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards.
A future Hall of Famer, Watt is the Texans’ all-time leader in sacks (101), tackles-for-loss (172) and forced fumbles (25).
Watt recorded 52 total tackles, 14 tackles-for-loss, five sacks, two forced fumbles and returned an interception for a touchdown in 2020.
Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster Says He Wants to Retire in Pittsburgh
Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster reiterated that he wants to finish his career in Pittsburgh, even though that possibility seems remote.
Smith-Schuster, speaking with TMZ Sports in Los Angeles on Wednesday, that he’s not looking for a reason to return to the West Coast, and wants to remain with the Steelers.
“At the end of the day, I want to have my legacy in Pittsburgh and retire there,” he said. “I don’t want to leave. … I’m Pittsburgh for life.”
Smith-Schuster also said that he still feels that Ben Roethlisberger has enough in the tank to the take the team to a championship and that he feels he has a good relationship with the Steelers’ quarterback.
Roethlisberger’s situation remains up in the air as he and the team attempt to come to terms on a re-negotiated or extended contract to ameliorate some of his $41 million cap hit for the 2021 season.
Roethlisberger said he would like Smith-Schuster to return, but the 24-year-old free agent will likely be able to command a salary in the $15 million per year range, which seems to be out of the price range of the Steelers, who remain well over the salary cap with three weeks to go before the start of the new league year.
How Can Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger Reduce His Salary Cap Hit?
It seems that both Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers would like to have Roethlisberger return to be the team’s quarterback for the 2021 season, after public statements from Roethlisberger’s agent Ryan Tollner and Steelers president Art Rooney II in the last 24 hours.
But both Tollner and Rooney emphasized the need for a parties to come to an agreement regarding Roethlisberger’s contract for the 2021 season.
The star quarterback is set to count for $41 million against the 2021 salary cap, a figure that the Steelers have said must be reduced in order for Roethlisberger to return. Roethlisberger has said that his salary for 2021 is not an issue to him.
But there are several different ways Roethlisberger’s 2021 salary can be reduced, and the remaining negotiations between the team and Roethlisberger’s representation will be based around that structure.
There are three basic ways that the team can reduce Roethlisberger’s salary cap for 2021: a traditional extension, an extension with voidable years and Roethlisberger taking a pay cut.
Here’s what Roethlisberger’s contact looks like right now:
In a traditional extension, Roethlisberger would convert most of his $19 million roster bonus and salary scheduled for 2021 into a signing bonus, with the impact divided over the number of years of the contract. These negotiations would also include future salary figures for Roethlisberger if he were to play in the 2022 season or beyond.
Without knowing how those negotiations would go, it’s hard to project what such a contract would look like in the future, but we can know what it would do to the 2021 salary cap:
The sides could also agree on a voidable extension that would add years to Roethlisberger’s contract in order to spread out the salary cap hit of the new singing bonus, but with both sides agreeing that he would not play beyond the 2021 season under the terms of that contract. The same amount of money could be turned into singing bonus, but it could be spread over more seasons without the team needing to worry about Roethlisberger attempting to stay and play well into his 40s.
Such an extension would look something like this on paper for the 2021 season:
But after the contract gets voided in 2022, the result would be something like this:
The final method would simply be negotiating a reduced contract for Roethlisberger in 2021. This is the only way for the team to get Roethlisberger’s cap hit for 2021 below about $27 million, and depending on how much he is willing to give up, could get as low as $23,325,000 in this example:
The earlier options would make Roethlisberger whole in 2021, with his entire due salary of $19 million get paid out this year and the cap impacts of that payment being spread out over several seasons.
This final option helps the team the most in 2021, but also involves Roethlisberger forgoing some of his negotiated salary, something the other options do not. It’s not clear if Roethlisberger of his representation will be willing to do that.