Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has often famously referred to the NFL’s off-season workouts – mandatory or otherwise - as “football in shorts.” In other words, it may not matter if a player looks good since – without blocking or tackling – it’s not real football.
But even without pads, there at least one aspect of the game that can be evaluated and it’s an important one. Coaches can at least start to get a pretty good idea of whether or not their cornerbacks can cover.
“Yes, I think you can,” agrees secondary Coach Teryl Austin. “Through OTA’s we’ve been able to get some 7-on-7 stuff so you have an idea about their movement skills and their ability to play the ball in the air, their understanding of coverage and route recognition. You can get all of those things without the tackling.”
“As you move into camp and once you get the full team stuff you really see how they operate because there (will be) runs involved and how they can put it all together,” Austin continues. “I think I feel pretty confident in terms of my evaluation of how they can or should be able to cover moving forward.”
This is particularly important for the Steelers, who cut veteran Steven Nelson and then lost Mike Hilton to free agency, leaving Joe Haden and Cam Sutton as the only truly experienced cornerbacks. Haden says he’ll miss Nelson but it’s time for the younger players to take advantage.
“There’s going to be a lot of opportunities for dudes like Antwan Brooks, Justin Layne, James Pierre,” Haden says. “These dudes are going to have really, really good opportunities to make great jumps in their careers.
Of course, the question is, with those guys be just dudes or will they prove to be ballers? Austin is optimistic.
“I like James Pierre, I like (Justin) Layne,” he says. “I know for sure have ability to play in this league and be quality players. It just depends on how fast and how far they progress over the next 4 or 5 weeks and we get back to camp.” And it goes beyond those two.
“I think this group we have there’s going to be some good competition,” Austin continues. “I think there’s a couple guys, a few guys, that could be like a James Pierre that kind of show up once we get to camp and contribute.”
Pierre was an undrafted free agent a year ago but made the team on special teams than worked his way onto the regular defense and got some meaningful snaps at outside corner. Seventh round pick Tre Norwood and veteran free agent Arthur Maulet, who has played both corner and safety for the Saints, Colts and Jets, could fit that bill.
“I’m comfortable there,” says Austin, “but I’m also aware that if we have a way to better our team and it happens to be an outside guy I’m more than happy to have him as well.”