Vanilla was the flavor best used to describe the Steelers’ defensive alignment during voluntary offseason workouts and mandatory minicamp.
On many series, the Steelers played their base defense that included four defensive backs. Other times, they would bring a fifth defensive back onto the practice field at the expense of the nose tackle.
And that was it.
The fancy stuff, the intricate formations with six or seven defensive backs on the field, the use of a hybrid linebacker/safety, that all remained in storage.
“We’ll wait for training camp,” defensive coordinator Keith Butler said a few times when asked about personnel issues in subpackages.
Perhaps no member of the secondary is more curious to see where he fits within the various schemes than second-year cornerback Cam Sutton.
The former third-round pick, coming off an abbreviated rookie season, is considered a valuable piece of the secondary. His precise position, though, remains unknown.
It could be at cornerback, provided he is able to wrestle the starting job away from Artie Burns. It could be as a slot or No. 4 corner in subpackages. It could be as a safety what with all the talk of Sutton switching positions in the offseason.
“I’m open to anything,” Sutton said last month during organized team activities.
At 5-foot-11, 188 pounds, Sutton would be among the smallest options at safety, where the Steelers remain undecided about which player is going to fill Mike Mitchell’s off-the-ball free spot. Strong safety Sean Davis and veteran free-agent signee Morgan Burnett took snaps there in the spring. Sutton said he also was used at safety.
“It was more for my development,” Sutton said, “showing my versatility that I can play the position. I think they see that because they trusted me to put me back there. I have a great understanding of the defense, and I think it opens up more opportunities for me.”
The topic of Sutton switching positions was raised when the Steelers parted ways with Mitchell and backups Robert Golden and J.J. Wilcox. But talk quieted when the Steelers selected two safeties in the NFL Draft, including first-rounder Terrell Edmunds.
The Steelers also released veteran corner William Gay, who played in dime situations last year, clearing another possible path for Sutton to get on the field.
Considering the way his rookie season started, Sutton was happy to get on the practice field in whatever capacity that Butler and new secondary coach Tom Bradley asked of him.
“I’ve been moving around a little bit, and it’s giving me a lot of opportunity,” Sutton said. “I’m trying to expand and keep building on what I learned last year. The more opportunities and reps I get, I can capitalize on them and make plays on the ball. That’s what it comes down to.”
Sutton’s chance to contribute immediately as a rookie was thwarted by a pair of hamstring injuries. The first cost him three weeks of training camp. The second, suffered in the preseason finale against Carolina, landed him on injured reserve, where he spent 12 weeks.
Sutton played in the final five games of the season. With starting left corner Joe Haden nursing a leg injury, Sutton shared snaps with Coty Sensabaugh for two games, then he started in the pivotal December game against the New England Patriots. When Haden returned to the lineup, Sutton played only three defensive snaps the rest of the season.
“He’s a very sharp young man,” Butler said. “He picks up stuff well. He’s very situationally aware. He’s still got a lot to learn, but we like what we’ve seen of him.”
This season, Haden returns on the left side, but the Steelers would like Sutton to provide competition for Burns on the right side. Sutton played with the first team during the final week of OTAs when Burns was absent.
Sutton even could be the team’s answer as a returner. He brought back three punts for touchdowns while at Tennessee, and he returned a kickoff 22 yards in the playoff loss to Jacksonville.
“I’m just taking it as it goes,” Sutton said. “I have a lot on my plate now, and I’m embracing everything we have.”
Given all of the additions via the draft and free agency, Sutton expects the Steelers to tinker with different personnel groups during training camp. And he’s aware that he’s not alone in being capable of suiting up at multiple positions.
“We have a lot of versatile guys,” he said. “Our whole room is not just based upon playing one position. There are times a guy has to play the high hole or the corner or in the box. I don’t think anyone limits themselves on saying I play one position.
“That’s good for our defense.”