By Zach Metkler of GZ Sports Report, special to the Point of Pittsburgh
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What a difference a few months makes.
Whenever the Steelers selected Artie Burns, Sean Davis, and Javon Hargrave in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd round, respectively, many analysts criticized the Steelers for reaching on players that were too raw and not ready to play right away like many thought were needed for the defense.
However, with just three weeks left in the regular season, the three rookies look right at home in their starting roles on the defense. How impressive is it that the Steelers are starting three rookies on defense? It’s the first time since 1971 when the Steelers started rookies Jack Ham, Mike Wagner and Dwight White, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. While this year’s rookies might have started more out of necessity than the rookies 45 years before them, the coaches are starting these players by choice and are not backing away from praising them for what they have accomplished this season.
After being considered a desperation reach by the Steelers in the first round, cornerback Artie Burns has transitioned himself into the starting lineup nicely. Since day one, Burns has shown the drive to make himself better, constantly throwing himself up against Antonio Brown in OTAs and training camp and routinely going up against some of the best receivers in the NFL this season. It hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows for the 21-year old from Miami. He has had a couple of bad moments against players like Dez Bryant and Mike Wallace that caused big touchdown plays.
But let’s be honest with ourselves. How many rookie cornerbacks are going to go up one-on-one against big-time receivers like Bryant and track stars like Wallace and not give up a big play? Honestly, I blame Keith Butler for not giving Burns help over the top on both plays, even though Burns was beat with technique issues on both plays. However, even with those types of blemishes this season, Burns has been impressive nonetheless. So far this season, Artie Burns has 3 interceptions and 10 passes defended. Burns was also widely criticized for not being the most physical tackler coming out of college. He still has some work to do when it comes to tackling, but he is a far cry from where he was in August. So far this season, Burns has 47 tackles, 40 of which are solo. He has really started to become a physical tackler on the outside as the game begins to slow down for him.
The most important aspect of Burns this season that has largely gone unnoticed was the player he jumped on the depth chart: William Gay. Since his return to the Steelers in 2013, Gay has been the Steelers best defensive back on the roster. With the emergence of Ross Cockrell as a steady presence on the outside and the team wishing to get Burns more reps, Gay has been moved to the #3 corner on the inside, which is a role that he played before with the Steelers. This gives him the opportunity to still be on the field but allow the young guns to continue their development as outside corners, where Burns can use his elite athleticism to matchup against some of the best.
Davis came to the Steelers sporting excellent versatility, having played both safety and cornerback while at Maryland. When the season started out, Davis was receiving reps at both dime safety and nickel corner. Whenever Senquez Golson went down with an injury in training camp, Davis got promoted to the starting nickel corner spot, where he would remain until Artie Burns began receiving increased reps, which ultimately led to him becoming the starting corner. Davis, on the other hand, did not earn a starting spot until after the bye week in the Steelers Week 9 matchup against the Ravens. The results from Davis were mixed early in the season, which led to him being benched temporarily. Davis’s struggles early were mostly with route recognition and open-field tackling. However, in recent weeks, Davis appears to have really began to put his game together, both as a tackler and in coverage. As the starting strong safety next to Mike Mitchell, Davis has all but closed the door on former starter Robert Golden, who has only played 26 defensive snaps over the last four weeks. Davis, on the other hand, has played 241 defensive snaps in that span, which is 100% of the total possible snaps he could have played.
Since becoming a starter in Week 9, Davis has 31 total tackles (out of the 49 he has on the season). In addition, he also tallied his first interception and first career sack, giving him 1.5 sacks on the season. Davis’ best performance of the season came against the Giants, where fans were able to see the game slow down for Davis right before their eyes. In that game, Davis showed tremendous recovery speed, great power at the point of attack, and, most importantly, improved tackling. Pro Football Focus gave Davis an 82.9 rating for his performance against the Giants, which was good enough to put him on their “Team of the Week”. Over the past two weeks, Davis has tallied 14 total tackles and has routinely made open-field tackles with great technique and power. As a strong safety, you are expected to make tough tackles and Davis has done just that.
Of the three rookie standouts, Hargrave was the first to make his presence known and if you ask anyone on the coaching staff who the most consistent rookie has been, they will almost all tell you Hargrave. Since day one, Hargrave has flashed an elite first step off of the ball with tremendous quickness and great usage of his hands. Simply put, Hargrave doesn’t make mistakes often. Before leaving the Giants game with a concussion, Hargrave was continuing to make a name for himself after being called to step up after Cam Heyward went down with a season-ending injury. During that time, Hargrave put together back-to-back games with a sack, giving him two on the season (more on that in a second). Since then, Hargrave has been playing starter-level snaps and logging lots of time as a nickel interior pass rusher. Hargrave has technically been the starting nose tackle for the Steelers all season, but with how little the Steelers use a true nose, Hargrave has seldom played in that capacity.
While it might not seem like it, Hargrave is actually in the midst of a historic season for the Steelers. As previously mentioned, Hargrave now has two sacks this season, but believe it or not, that is something that neither Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt did in their rookie seasons. Additionally, he is also the first Steelers’ rookie defensive lineman to have multiple sacks in a season since Rodney Bailey in 2001 and is the first rookie to do it back-to-back games since Brentson Buckner in 1994, per Alex Kozora. So needless to say, Hargrave has made his impact felt this season.
The Steelers’ rookies still have plenty of progress that needs to be made. At the end of the day, they are still rookies but the strides they have made this season are more impactful than most other rookies in recent Steelers’ memory. So far, the Steelers are pleased with the results that they have shown, which is being the type of players the Steelers expected they would get. The even more incredible part of this draft class is that there is potential for even more impact players. Seventh-round pick Tyler Matakevich has made strides on special teams this season and could potentially carve out a role with the Steelers middle linebackers as early as next season with the future of Lawrence Timmons up in the air. Fourth-round tackle Jerald Hawkins showed plenty of promise during training camp and the preseason before going down with a season-ending injury. Realistically, Hawkins could become the Steelers swing tackle next season and eventually become a starter depending on how the team feels about Alejandro Villanueva for the long-term.
The more the rookies are playing, the more they are producing for the Steelers. They still have a way to go, but at least they are showing glimpses of the sort of players they will be in the future. The three of them, along with players like Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt, Cam Heyward, Bud Dupree, and Ross Cockrell, leave the Steelers with plenty of optimism for the future. After struggling to be an effective unit, it seems that the defensive resurgence is finally here.