It has been quite the odyssey for rookie cornerback Cameron Sutton. It seemed like only a few months ago, Sutton was placed on injury after re-aggravating a hamstring injury that had been ailing him through training camp. After missing the first 8 games of the season, many wondered if Sutton’s fate was to mirror past cornerbacks that did not pan out such as Senquez Golson, Shaquille Richardson, Doran Grant or Terry Hawthorne. Sutton, to his credit, was able to overcome his injury in similar fashion as he did in college with the University of Tennessee after his junior year, and was activated from injury reserve on November 21st.
In his debut on December 4th against the Cincinnati Bengals, it became clear that Sutton was the type of cornerback that the Steelers were looking for in absence of veteran All-Pro cornerback Joe Haden. In the first half, Bengals receiver AJ Green often got the upper hand against Steelers cornerback Coty Sensabaugh, as he finished the half with 77 yards on only 7 receptions. In the second half when Sutton was inserted in place of Sensabaugh, Green came away with no receptions and the Steelers were able to overcome a 17-point deficit and steal a victory from an opportunistic Bengals team.
Sunday’s game against Tom Brady and his New England Patriots presented an opportunity few players receive in their starting NFL debut, the chance to play a team considered by many as the gold standard organization of the modern era. From reviewing Sutton on film in this game, not only did he represent himself well, but in certain instances Brady avoided passing to his side. This is generally seen as a indication that a cornerback is doing their job effectively. Though Sutton still has some way to go before establishing himself as a permanent starter, he certainly took the right steps with his performance in this game.
Sutton’s Touchdown Allowed
There are times where the smallest details determine the outcome of a situation. In this goal line scenario, Sutton is seen on the top right of the screen, one-on-one with Patriots receiver Brandin Cooks. From the snap, Cooks starts his route by faking on the outside shoulder of Sutton. Sutton in this case does the right thing and shadows him, the only problem being that he flips his hips a little too wide. Because of this, by the time Cooks maneuvers to run the slant route inside, Sutton takes a little more time than needed to adjust and play this ball. This small delay gave Brady enough time to pass the ball inside to Cooks for the touchdown. In Sutton’s defense, this was a hard play to defend as the margin of error is minimal, and Cooks is a proficient route runner. Of the things that Sutton was noted for back in his playing days with the Tennessee Volunteers, one was the fluidity of his hips. In this particular play, he slightly overcommitted to playing outside. Had he not overcommitted, Sutton would have likely had a pass defended on this play instead of a touchdown allowed.
Closing the Gap to make the Tackle
One of the aspects to Sutton’s game that was not noted on his draft report was his ability to close the gap. On this particular play on 2nd down, Sutton is seen on the bottom of the screen, in man coverage against the Patriots receiver. From the snap, the Patriots receiver starts his route and Sutton quickly flips his hips and shadows him on the outside. When the receiver reaches the first down mark, he comes back to make the catch. What is impressive is the manner in which Sutton is not only able to quickly close the gap, but he manages to make a textbook tackle, preventing the first down. When a receiver runs this type of comeback route, the defender generally overcommits and leaves enough room for the receiver to take advantage. In this play, Sutton did not overcommit and gave him enough space to make the tackle. It is plays like this that distinguishes him from other corners on the team like Sensabaugh and why Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler had no problems placing him in one-on-one situations.
From watching much of the film of that game, it was noted that Brady sometimes hesitated throwing to his side. It was quite clear that they respected Sutton’s abilities throughout the course of the game. Prior to the draft, it was rumored that the Patriots were very much interested in Cameron Sutton and with good reason. Sutton has a package of skills that many teams are looking for in a cornerback — fluid hips, closing speed, high football IQ, and the ability to make tackles. Even with the inevitable return of Haden to the lineup, Sutton has proven in the small sample size that he is more than capable backup. As the Steelers look to make the secondary an area of strength, Sutton will be needed in order to help them get to that next level.