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Tre Norwood, Arthur Maulet Lead Tough Steelers Slot Cornerback Battle

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Steelers DB Tre Norwood
Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back works drills during OTAs at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, May 26, 2022 -- ED THOMPSON

PITTSBURGH — The Steelers wrapped minicamp Thursday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex after having several opportunities to see their defensive backs work in team drills. Between OTAs and minicamp, defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and defensive backs coach Grady Brown got several chances to see the team’s competition at slot cornerback.

Two defensive backs who primarily filled that role in 2021 were Arthur Maulet and Tre Norwood. Both lined up at slot cornerback more than any other alignment in the secondary, but with Maulet taking more reps at the position.

“I’ve been on a lot of teams where I didn’t play a lot,” Maulet said about being slot cornerback. “It was my first time in the nickel last year. I got experience playing against starting quarterbacks and learned how the defense works and where my help is. I’m excited for this year.”

Maulet took 270 snaps last season at slot cornerback with only seven snaps at outside cornerback and one snap at free safety. Norwood took 198 snaps in the slot with 109 snaps at free safety and six snaps at outside cornerback. And in minicamp, both have acquitted themselves well in a competition to see who would be the top option to start Steelers training camp when players report July 26.

“We’ve got a lot of good guys out there,” Edmunds said Thursday of the slot corner spot. “We’ve got Arthur Maulet still ballin, Tre Norwood, and Karl Joseph has really been doing it. It’s definitely a dog fight. Everyone’s in position and trying to compete.”

Joseph has taken the slot cornerback reps after both Norwood and Maulet. But each of them have made their own cases as to why the Steelers shouldn’t consider the position settled until they’ve had a full training camp and preseason to mull over.

“That’s what you want out of any room,” Edmunds continued. “You want everyone to go out there and push each other to be the best. It’s like a mutual ‘I don’t want you to make a mistake today.’ Then you go out there and compete and the best man wins, but it’s all love.”

‘Competition breeds success’ is a common phrase, and it absolutely applies to football roster battles. That competition isn’t limited to just Maulet and Norwood, either, as Cameron Sutton also played in the slot during minicamp. He didn’t play there as much in 2021 with 204 slot snaps vs. 784 at outside cornerback. But he did play in the slot more than any other position in each season of 2018, 2019 and 2020.

His return to the slot with two interceptions, as detailed in Nick Farabaugh‘s Thursday minicamp takeaways, was an example of the Steelers’ propensity to find good matchups. Second-year defensive backs coach Grady Brown talked about the competition at that spot Thursday.

“You always want an opportunity to put guys in a position to do what they do best,” Brown said when asked about slot coverage. “When you take a guy like Arthur Maulet, there are things on film that he does well that we’ve all seen him doing. When you take a guy like Tre Norwood, he does completely different things. Cam Sutton has made a living in there and only played outside recently. We just need to put guys in position to do what they do best. That’ll put us in position to play good defense ad get our best guy in the slot.”

Make no mistake; the Steelers will use Sutton in the slot role, but that will come more as part of a rotation. He’s in the final year of his two-year contract with the Steelers and looks to fit in anywhere he can.

“It doesn’t matter,” Sutton said when asked where he fits into the secondary. “I don’t have a feel for it because we’re all working so hard on this defense to see what we can do together. It’s all about matchups and showing offenses different things week-in and week-out. You might see Ahkello (Witherspoon) inside, you might see Levi (Wallace) inside, you’ll see us moving around.”

The more cornerbacks who can play both outside and in the slot, the better. It allows for positional flexibility and better disguises for Austin to and Brown to craft coverages that confuse quarterbacks. Witherspoon and Wallace have typically been outside cornerbacks, but if they can mix with Sutton, Maulet and Norwood more, it makes it harder to predict their assignments pre-snap.

That’s especially the case for Norwood.

“It’s not one specific role,” Norwood said about his assignments. “We’re early in the process and I’m doing safety right now, but the plan is to get slot reps. For me, I have to pinpoint and hone in on my versatility in different roles.”

Norwood was known for getting his hands on the football in college and did a solid job as a rookie selected in the seventh round last year. In just 305 coverage snaps he recorded four pass breakups and an interception while allowing 32 receptions on 44 targets.

That’s a lot of responsibility for a rookie who played all over the defense and on special teams. But Norwood earned that with a strong training camp showing his rookie year. And now he’s earned the respect of his coaches to further increase his roles and responsibilities.

“That’s what makes Tre great,” Brown said of Norwood. “He can do a number of things. We’re not going to handcuff him. We’re not going to lock him into a certain position. I think he needs to continue to be a young Cam Sutton. He does so many things. You can never have enough of those players in your room.”

That’s high praise for Norwood, as Sutton was a rookie third round draft pick in 2017 who filled in for an injured Joe Haden at outside cornerback on a 13-3 Steelers team. After playing almost exclusively in the slot role in 2019, Sutton has been open to playing all over the Steelers’ defense.

If Norwood can bring that kind of versatility, it will give Austin a lot to play with when drawing up matchup opportunities week-to-week against NFL opponents. Meanwhile, Norwood knows nothing will be handed to him while Maulet pushes to be the team’s top slot option.

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