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Steelers hope vets, youth fill secondary

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Steelers lost Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton, two key pieces of a strong secondary, during the offseason.

But the Steelers feel that the return of veteran leaders Joe Haden, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds, and the emergence of younger players like Cam Sutton and Justin Layne can effectively fill the void in a new-look secondary.

“I know we lost (Nelson) and (Hilton), but when you think about it, (Haden), Minkah and (Edmunds) will be playing their third year together, and I think that’s super important,” Steelers’ secondary coach Teryl Austin said Wednesday during the team’s second day of minicamp. “Anyone new that comes in here, that veteran leadership is really important when you have turnover because they help the new guys understand the expectations and what it means to play defense here in Pittsburgh.”

The Steeler defense ranked as one of the best in the NFL last season, finishing No. 3 overall and against the pass. Hilton signed with Cincinnati as a free agent and the Steelers released Nelson in a salary cap-related move, as the team opted to cut the veteran cornerback rather than trade him.

“I was a little surprised, but obviously it’s a business thing,” Haden said about Nelson’s release. “When you have so much talent on one team, sometimes you can’t keep everyone.”

Haden and Nelson became one of the league’s top cornerback tandems and one of the reasons the Steelers finished top five in total defense the previous two seasons. But Haden said that Nelson’s departure creates opportunity for players like Sutton and Layne, in addition to Antoine Brooks, the team’s 2020 sixth-round pick, and James Pierre, who made the team last season as an undrafted free agent.

Pierre came up with two interceptions on Wednesday, both against veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, including one during the two-minute drill. Pierre said Roethlisberger congratulated him after practice.

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