By Zach Metkler of GZ Sports Report, special to the Point of Pittsburgh
Check out this article on GZ Sports Report
Entering the 2016 offseason, it was no secret that the Steelers were in need of secondary help. The team had spent the past few years overhauling their defense, but they were still short on playmakers. During the 1st-round of the NFL Draft, the Steelers selection turned some heads, as most Steelers fans had the team pegged to take CB William Jackson III, DT Andrew Billings, or even an under the radar player like DT A’Shawn Robinson. Unfortunately for the Steelers, Jackson was selected at pick #24 to the hated Bengals. This made everyone and their mothers believe that the Steelers would then select Billings.
“With the 25th pick of the 2016 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers select…”
Unless you are an avid follower of the NFL Draft process, you probably never heard much about the rangy, athletic cornerback from Miami. Almost instantly, everyone began pegging Burns as a bust, stating that he would never develop into a legitimate cornerback, that he was a tremendous reach, and that the Steelers top brass was foolish for not selecting the huge, athletic tackle from Baylor.
At first, it appeared that this could possibly be true. Burns spent most of the offseason in workouts and OTA’s covering Antonio Brown. Although Burns was lucky to get a play or two against Brown every now and then, the All-Pro receiver embarrassed the 1st-rounder on most occasions. You could see the fire in Burns to want to continue covering Brown to improve himself against the best receiver in the league. However, this would have to wait, as Burns spent most of training camp injured. As the Steelers’ prized acquisition of this offseason, Burns unfortunately missed a large portion of padded practices during camp and three of the games in the preseason. However, Burns’ debut against the Panthers in the final week of the preseason was the moment fans had been waiting for. He started the game against the Panthers with a very shaky play, but ultimately put together a nice performance after making some key plays in the endzone.
Although he put together a solid performance, it was still against 2nd- and 3rd-string talent. Burns was also still not high on the depth chart due to the Steelers having veteran cornerback William Gay next to Ross Cockrell, who has impressed during his time with the Steelers over the last year. The true test would not come until Week 1 against the Redskins, where Burns had the opportunity to be the Steelers’ dime cornerback. Fellow rookie Sean Davis had already earned the team’s trust as the starting nickel cornerback (even though his primary position was safety) so there was little room for Burns to make an impact. This was indicated by the fact that he only played 9 snaps in Washington.
Fast-forward to the present, and you have seen a cornerback that has steadily improved week in and week out for the Steelers. In Week 2, Burns would see a huge spike in snaps against the hated Bengals. The team was committed to playing Cockrell against receiver A.J. Green for the entire game (a decision that paid off handsomely) which gave the Steelers flexibility at cornerback. Burns played a total of 32 snaps against Cincinnati, most of which were on the outside. Most of these snaps came during clear passing situations where Burns was lined outside opposite of Cockrell with Gay in the slot. Burns’ 32 snaps also showed position versatility, with 19 coming on the left, 12 on the right, and 1 in the slot in an empty set by the Bengals. As was expected, Burns had a lot of positives and negatives in the game. He continued to show progress as a player against the Eagles, however it was a bit rougher of a performance. But who didn’t have a rough performance against the Eagles? As the Steelers worse loss since 1989, it was hard to find any bright spots against the Eagles.
This past week against the Chiefs, Burns continued his ascent up the Steelers depth chart, where he would be the starting outside cornerback in the nickel packages, which is how the Steelers often start off drives. Yes, this was largely due to Davis not being available to play, but Burns had put himself in a position to deserve the reps with the starters. He was targeted early and often by Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith. As previously noted, Burns had many ups and downs. However, the “ups” are beginning to really shine.
In each of the past three games, Burns has had spectacular pass breakups that have saved the Steelers from giving up a big play. On one play against the Chiefs, Burns was completely beat by receiver Tyreek Hill, who looked like he would have no problem playing toss-and-catch with Smith. However, Burns showed off his superior athleticism and recovered nicely, getting a hand in on the play and breaking up the pass. After the play, one of my buddies Justin texted me, saying “it’s plays like that when I’m a Burns believer.” The same type of play came against the Bengals (which is still the best play of his young career) when he was able to redirect himself, locate the ball in the air, and deflect what would have been an easy touchdown from Andy Dalton to Brandon LaFell.
While Burns has had his struggles, the coaching staff has shown confidence in the young defensive back, especially Mike Tomlin. Tomlin has had nothing but praise for Burns, which is huge because the 10-year head coach is never quick to talk highly about players. Tomlin has had the following to say about Burns:
“Excited about watching him get back to work this week. One of the exciting things about him is his general approach to work on a day to day basis has been very positive. He’s focused, intense, and plays with a good tempo.”
“He’s in the process of continuing to earn out trust…to his credit, his attention to detail and urgency during practice has been excellent. I think that’s provided a sense of comfort and allowed him to work into some packages and with that play, he’s earning more. He’s going through a process of growth and development and proving that he’s capable. Doing a good job in the big scheme of things but that needs to continue.”
Not bad, rookie.
Earlier in the season, Burns admitted to being “kind of behind” in his learning curve, which could be bad considering the fact that he is a raw prospect already. However, injuries have thrust him into playing time earlier than what might have originally been expected. While the “ups” are a thing of beauty to watch, the “downs” have been ugly as well. Against the Bengals, Burns missed an open tackle on running back Giovani Bernard which led to a touchdown, putting the Bengals in striking distance of the Steelers. Against the Eagles, rookie quarterback Carson Wentz threw a bubble screen to receiver Josh Huff which was blocked up beautifully by the Eagles. Burns was given a 1-on-1 opportunity to make the tackle for no gain, but missed after trying to arm tackle.
This should come as a surprise to no one: Artie Burns is a raw prospect. Burns has some technical issues that he is working on and will continue to work on throughout the season but you can clearly see that the potential is there. Burns’ coverage skills are solid and he does a good job of reading the receiver on routes and when the ball is in the air. Burns is also in the right mindset at this point as well, which is strongly indicated by his drive and desire to consistently matchup against Brown every play in practice. Defensive backs coach Carnell Lake has clearly indicated that the young defensive backs will get every opportunity to play, and this starts with Burns. While the early indications might not seem promising, don’t be fooled. It is only a matter of time until it all clicks for the 1st-rounder from Miami.
While Burns is still playing catchup after missing most of the preseason, we have witnessed his potential through the first quarter of the season and as long as he continues getting the opportunities to develop, the Steelers might have found their cornerback of the future.
He isn’t there yet. There is still plenty of work to do.
Just be patient.