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The Steelers X-Factor for rest of 2021 NFL season, and it’s not Najee Harris

Pittsburgh Steelers, James Pierre, Najee Harris

Not many would have predicted that the Pittsburgh Steelers would boast a winning record at any point in the season following their 1-3 start. But here they are, as they head into their Week 10 home matchup against the Detroit Lions with a 5-3 record.

The Steelers have had a multitude of key contributors on both sides of the ball over their four-game winning streak.

The likes of T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward have continued to be a nightmare to opposing quarterbacks as of late due to their sheer prowess in veering into the backfield and picking up timely sacks.

On the other side, the Steelers offense has seen a couple of first-year players emerge as focal points in the weekly game-planning for offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Najee Harris has continued to bolster his resume for the 2021 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award, while tight end Pat Freiermuth is now gradually becoming a go-to option for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

As the Steelers head into the stretch run of the season, they sure will need these such players to remain as pivotal contributors on the team. And if they aim to make a run at a second consecutive AFC North title, then one player in particular needs to emerge as an X-factor.

Steelers X-Factor

As was expected ahead of the season, Joe Haden and Cameron Sutton have been set as the starting cornerbacks for the Steelers. Haden has not missed a single snap on defense in the campaign, while Sutton has logged at least 100 percent of snaps played in five games, which include Pittsburgh’s dramatic Week 9 home win over the Chicago Bears.

As seen in years past, defensive back depth can go a long way in whether a team goes on to make a late push to the playoffs. The likes of cornerbacks Mike Hilton and Coty Sensabaugh played this role during their runs in Pittsburgh. And this season, second-year cornerback James Pierre must be that player for the Steelers.

Pierre has seen his snaps played vary by the week. For one, he played in all 100 percent of Pittsburgh’s snaps on defense against the Broncos in Week 55, as Sutton was ruled out due to a groin injury. But after allowing four completions for 50 receiving yards and one touchdown while in coverage during the game, he has gone on to feature in less than 25 percent of snaps on defense in Pittsburgh’s last three games.

If the Steelers aim to make a grand playoff push, then Pierre surely must step up to the occasion when called upon. He may not be a physical cornerback who has the tendency to be a menace to opposing wide receivers. More so, he has had a knack to allow big-yard plays in coverage, which include being a step behind on Cincinnati Bengals rookie wideout Ja’Marr Chase’s 34-yard receiving touchdown in Week 3.

Still, Pierre can be a game-changer for Pittsburgh in the takeaways department on both defense and special teams. From his game-sealing interception against the Broncos to his two forced fumbles in the Steelers’ last three games, he has been one with an eye on simply creating timely turnovers.

As the Steelers are set to clash with several offenses over the remainder of the season that have opted to go with 21 and 01 personnel groupings a fair share of times, Pierre may be tasked with notable matchups against speedy slot wide receivers. If this turns out to be the case, then he must prove to the Steelers coaching staff that he has what it takes to be a reliable cornerback in coverage.