The first time Cameron Sutton wrapped his hands around the football against the Los Angeles Chargers, he thought it might be the play that sealed a victory for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Turns out, he was wrong.
It wasn’t until Sutton came down with the ball a second time that put the finishing touches on the Steelers’ 24-17 victory over the Chargers on Sunday night.
The third-year, do-it-all defensive back from Tennessee had his most impressive game as a Steeler with two critical plays in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter: He recovered an onside kick, then had an interception.
“It’s just the next man up. When opportunity presents itself, you’ve just got to be ready to go in there and make the play,” Sutton said. “Credit to the guys around me, obviously, having confidence in me. Not just in me. Everyone played well in all three phases. We really played complementary football, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Sutton has showcased his versatility for the Steelers this season by playing everywhere from slot cornerback to strong safety to dime linebacker, depending on the subpackage. For a player without a defined position, he was in the right place to make important plays on special teams and on defense.
Sutton proved his value in the fourth quarter, responding to an emergency with a sense of urgency. The Steelers already were playing without starting cornerback Steve Nelson, who didn’t make the trip. They lost another when Joe Haden left the game with a groin injury. That left the Steelers with two backup corners, Sutton and Artie Burns, defending the pass against a late rally led by Chargers 16-year veteran quarterback Philip Rivers.
Sutton answered by making one tackle and two pass breakups while covering Mike Williams, who had five receptions for 72 yards. The first breakup came on a second-and-goal pass from the 5 into the end zone, the second from the Steelers’ 39.
The Chargers, however, scored on both drives to cut a 24-point deficit to seven. They elected to attempt an onside kick, and Chase McLaughlin bounced one high to the left side. Sutton leaped high to catch the ball, recovering it for the Steelers with 1 minute, 29 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter to preserve possession.
“He upheld the standard with the quality of play,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, “not only on defense but the onside kid recovery was a spectacular play.”
Sutton credited special teams coordinator Danny Smith for switching the placement on the hands team, moving tight end Vance McDonald over one spot to allow Sutton to be in position to make the play.
“(It was an) opportunity to see the ball in the air, and you’ve just got to go up and get it,” Sutton said. “It helped seal the victory.”
The Steelers offense went three-and-out before Jordan Berry’s pooch punt pinned the Chargers at their own 1. It was another standout special-teams play, one that forced Rivers into a desperation throw from his own end zone.
“Special teams did a great job of pinning them deep,” Sutton said. “We’ve got to keep them down there. It’s our job to create turnovers and keep opposing offenses down there, and we were able to do that.”
Rivers threw downfield for Williams again, but Sutton picked off the pass at the Chargers 34 and returned it to their 8-yard line with 41 seconds left. It proved to be the play that put the game away, allowing the Steelers to take a knee in the victory formation.
“Our defense had been standing up all night when we had to,” Sutton said. “I’m not saying we still don’t have a lot to work on, but it was great for us to close out that game and start moving in the right tracks.”