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.”