Joe Haden’s absence for five games last season coincided with the increase in long pass plays allowed by the Pittsburgh Steelers secondary.
That’s why it was troubling when Haden left the Steelers’ opener Sunday in the fourth quarter with a hamstring injury. The extent of the veteran cornerback’s injury was not revealed Monday, but members of the secondary feel like they are better equipped this season to handle any time Haden might miss.
“When somebody goes down, we don’t expect a drop-off with the guys we have in the room,” cornerback Artie Burns said. “We worked hard all training camp, and we have faith in the guys in our room.”
One reason for such optimism is the development of second-year cornerback Cameron Sutton. Although he was beaten for a touchdown shortly after replacing Haden in the Steelers’ 21-21 tie against the Cleveland Browns, Sutton rebounded to gather in an interception late in regulation — the only turnover produced by the Steelers.
Sutton, who started one of the five games he played in 2017 after beginning the season on injured reserve, would be in line to start at cornerback Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs in the event Haden’s hamstring is slow to heal.
“I kind of prepare (to start) every week regardless of if you are or aren’t,” Sutton said Monday. “That’s how you have to look at it. If the opportunity presents itself, or if you’re not starting out there initially, you’ve got to be ready to go.”
Sutton played two snaps in the Steelers’ dollar package in which seven defensive backs are deployed until Haden was injured on special teams. Sutton played the final 31 defensive snaps of regulation and overtime.
Browns quarterback Tyrod Taylor completed just 15 of 40 passes, but two of his biggest completions were throws on successive plays in which Sutton was targeted in single coverage. The first was a 38-yard toss to Rashard Higgins, followed by a 17-yard touchdown pass to Josh Gordon that tied the score at 21-21 with 1 minute, 58 seconds left in regulation.
“Cam came out, and they tested him. That’s what the NFL does,” free safety Sean Davis said. “He lost the first battle, but he came back and fought and won the second one. That’s expected of him.”
Sutton helped send the game into overtime when he intercepted Taylor with 16 seconds left. The Browns were at the Steelers 43 when Taylor heaved a deep pass for Gordon. Sutton got in front of the ball and grabbed it at the Steelers 8.
“You expect the ball to come at you every play,” Sutton said. “It’s not just because I’m the backup cornerback, or I come into a game at a certain point in time. I feel like anybody out there on the field should expect the ball to come to them every play because you want to make plays.”
Too often the secondary gave up big plays in 2017 after Haden was lost in midseason to a fibula fracture.
To that point, the Steelers had allowed one pass play of at least 40 yards. They permitted six during the five games Haden missed. Of the 48 pass completions of 20-plus yards, 19 came in that interval.
It was during Haden’s absence that Sutton got on the field for the first time. He played extended snaps in place of replacement starter Coty Sensabaugh against the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens, and he started and played all but a few snaps against the New England Patriots.
“Cam has a real good skill set, and I’m glad he was able to show it as a rookie,” Davis said. “He’s continuing to get better as well. As a group, I feel like we’re on the rise. Cam has done his job in the offseason to prepare himself for moments like this to be able to bounce back and show that he deserves to be out there.”
No matter if Haden or Sutton is at cornerback this Sunday, the Steelers secondary expects to be tested with deep passes from Chiefs first-year starting quarterback Patrick Mahomes. In a 38-28 season-opening win over the Los Angeles Chargers, Mahomes threw four touchdown passes and averaged 17 yards per completion.
Mahomes had six completions of at least 20 yards, including a 36-yard touchdown pass to fullback Anthony Sherman on a toss down the sideline and a 58-yarder to Tyreek Hill.
“They have explosive guys on that offense, and they’ve got an explosive quarterback,” Sutton said. “They like to take their shots down the field, and he has the guys surrounding him to do that. … It’s up to us to accept their challenge and make plays.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at [email protected] or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.