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Steelers Analysis

Under-the-Radar Steelers DB Silences Bengals; Bigger Test Awaits



Steelers CB Chandon Sullivan
Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Chandon Sullivan on Aug. 19, 2023. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers shut down the Cincinnati Bengals passing attack last week with a patchwork defensive secondary.

Practice squad member Eric Rowe, playing in his first game of the 2023 season, and converted cornerback Patrick Peterson, making his first start at safety, got a lot of the attention for their efforts in shutting down Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and company.

But there were some other important pieces of that puzzle, as well. The Steelers have been using three safeties for their Nickel and Dime packages for the most of the season, and with the cupboard bare at that position, they mostly got away from that against the Bengals.

Peterson has played both inside and outside cornerback this season, and the Steelers have used him to take away top interior passing threats earlier this season. That wasn’t able to be the case when he moved to safety.

So while Joey Porter Jr. was shadowing Tee Higgins, slot corner Chandon Sullivan played his highest percentage of defensive snaps against the Bengals, and he drew rave reviews from defensive coordinator Teryl Austin for his efforts.

“I though he did a really good job,” Austin said Thursday. “They do a lot stuff with RPOs and screens. I thought he did a really good job of killing some screens, because those things can become big plays. Sully played good. Sully has been fairly consistent for us. He hasn’t been a splash player, but I thought last week, he made some splash plays because those things he did on the screen, he beats two blocks and tackles a guy, and all that stuff, those are big plays that maybe sometimes guys don’t get enough credit for. I think he did well and I hope he continues that.”

The Steelers might get strong safety Trenton Thompson back this week — he practiced Wednesday, free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, did not — but it seems that the distribution of personnel this Sunday is likely going to be fairly similar to what it was last week, and that should mean another big game of reps for Sullivan in the slot.

It will also be another game where he’ll face a top slot receiver, no matter which one it. The Seahawks feature one of the most diverse receiving rooms in the league, with big, physical specimen DK Metcalf on the outside flanked by All-Pro Tyler Lockett and promising rookie Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who have split time between the slot and outside.

“They’ve got speed, they’ve got size,” Sullivan said on the matchup. “We’re going to have to have our eyes in the right place. We’re going to have to tackle. They can make plays in space. We’ve got our hands full this week, but I like our matchup.”

Metcalf is a physical beast, but Lockett’s success — he’s near his fifth straight 1,000-yard season — is more about his skills and his shiftiness than his power or size.

“He’s smart,” Sullivan said. “He’s a veteran player. He’s quick and fast. Not a lot of guys have both. When he’s in space, when it’s the slot, he can make plays, whether it’s a linebacker or a slot defender.”

Both Lockett and Smith-Njigba are comfortable going over the middle, which has been a problem spot for the Steelers with their injury issues at linebacker and safety.

 “Over the middle is kind of our Achilles heel right now,” Austin said. “I think they’d probably try to get all those guys over the middle at some point. It’s our job to defend it. We have to do a better job. I’ve got to help our guys get in better positions. But I think they’re all capable of going over the middle and making some hay down there. They’ve got three quality guys. … We’ve to our work cut out for us.”

They do, and Sullivan will be front and center in trying to shut down that group this week.