The wait was finally over. Not just for fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers awaiting their first glimpse of their top draft pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, but also for Artie Burns. After suffering a quadriceps injury early in training camp, Burns had been forced to workout on the side, take mental reps and watch film. In fact, no one, including Burns, quite knew what to expect when he took the field Thursday night against the Carolina Panthers in the preseason finale.
The common report on Burns coming out of Miami was just how raw he was. He possessed all the tangibles which made him an attractive prospect, but the so-called "experts" all agreed he lacked the technique and finesse to be an NFL ready player in his rookie season.
Nonetheless, Burns let his play do the talking, as he played the first half of the game Thursday, and what he put on film was impressive, but for Burns he just wanted to get the first game out of the way.
"It felt good to get my first game under my belt," Burns told Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Burns ended up with 4 tackles, 3 solo, and two passes defended, one of which he almost made a tremendous diving interception in the red-zone. Even with a steady performance in the game, Burns realizes there is still work to do.
"There's much improvement to be made. It definitely felt good. I had my first game in almost a year. I wanted to show everyone what I could do. It felt real good to be out there again."
Fans clearly had high expectations for Burns' first game action, but for the team's first round draft pick, he kept it simple.
"Just getting my hands on a couple balls, make a couple tackles out there. I felt like I did good."
Burns didn't have to face Cam Newton, but he made the plays which were presented to him, and no one is expecting an apology from him for simply playing against who the opposition puts on the field. It isn't as if he doesn't have some experience practicing against some pretty good receivers who wear black and gold every day. Mainly Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton and Eli Rogers.
It is this experience which will hopefully get Burns up to speed before the team travels to Washington in Week 1 of the NFL regular season.
"I go against our [starters], the great receivers that we have, I'll get good reps against them and get back up to speed."
If Burns is able to get up to speed and prove capable, it could give the team some much needed versatility in their secondary depth, something they currently don't have. In some scenarios, Burns could take William Gay's spot on the outside, moving Gay to the slot, his natural position. This move would also alleviate Sean Davis from playing the slot as a rookie, and being able to focus solely on the safety position.
Burns took a step in the right direction, and is still far away from being ready for the rigors of the regular season, but fans should be encouraged by what they saw on Thursday night in Charlotte.