Antoine Brooks gets 1st shot at replacing Mike Hilton as Steelers’ nickel DB

Coach Mike Tomlin, true to form, downplayed it.

And it’s true that what happens during the first practice of training camp doesn’t necessarily mean anything once the games count.

But that Antoine Brooks Jr. was playing with the first-team defense provided the biggest clue yet of what the Pittsburgh Steelers’ plans are for the top of their depth chart this season at slot/nickel.

All that Tomlin would commit to Thursday was that Brooks will “probably get the start” Aug. 5 in the Hall of Fame Game against the Dallas Cowboys in Canton, Ohio. After being told in a question about Brooks that media will be told to not read too much into Brooks’ first-team participation Thursday, Tomlin responded, “Exactly what you said.”

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, though, was much more willing to talk about Brooks, a sixth-round pick last year out of Maryland who played just 29 defensive snaps in 2020.

That’s because, Roethlisberger confirmed, he was intercepted by Brooks.

“He made a great play,” Roethlisberger said. “I thought it was one of the sneakiest little slingshots that I’ve ever seen. It never would have got called, but my angle was perfect to see it. I told him about it. He knew he did it. Not only did he make a great (diving) play, he caught it. I more smiled and shook my head like what a good play because we need those plays.”

The Steelers desperately need someone to step up to play in the slot this season. The former four-year holder of that position, Mike Hilton, moved on by signing a $24 million contract with the rival Cincinnati Bengals.

The position is one of the few true open competitions of camp, but there are few obvious answers. Aside from Cameron Sutton moving inside in the nickel with another player taking his place at outside corner, Brooks’ 29 snaps are the most of any candidate for the full-time slot gig.

Drafted more as a safety, Brooks’ versatility always was seen as his best asset by the Steelers.

“He’s filling Mike Hilton’s shoes, who was a rock on that defense for a while,” Roethlisberger said. “For him to make that (interception), I was happy for him. As mad as I was at throwing an interception, it was a great play.”

Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .