Like a lot of young defenders the Steelers have drafted recently with an eye towards rebuilding a unit that was once one of the most dominant and feared in the NFL, the opinions on third-year cornerback Artie Burns have been a mixed bag between very good and not so great.
But that’s to be expected at the highest level of professional football, especially at a position where playing on an island is an important job requirement, and even the very best in the game often walk away with burn marks and bruised egos.
A significant portion of the goodwill Burns had built up near the end of his rookie season in 2016, after the Steelers made him their somewhat controversial first-round draft pick, began to erode during his sophomore year, this despite him starting all 16 games in 2017.
Don’t get me wrong, Burns was a decent-to-very good cornerback last season, but he just didn’t seem to make that all-important first-to-second-year leap you like to see out of a youngster, especially one with a first-round pedigree.
Burns’ biggest strength coming out of the University of Miami was considered to be his man-to-man coverage skills — while playing zone defense and tackling were his biggest weaknesses.
As for those weaknesses, they were on display occasionally a year ago, and the word “bust” became synonymous with Burns, at least among a small-but-vocal minority.
But as all-world receiver Antonio Brown famously (or infamously) said during OTAs this past spring, the only way you get better is by showing up. And Burns has done just that since his rookie year. Not only has Burns shown up consistently, he’s regularly had to duke it out with Brown, not merely all-world at his craft, but the best on the planet.
If you’re a former first-round pick and you don’t improve at your job while practicing against a man who’s better than anyone you’ll face in a regular-season game, shame on you.
This is why it’s encouraging to hear the stories coming out of training camp about Burns not only smothering mere mortal receivers in passing drills, but also winning his share of battles against the immortal No. 84.
In a story published on Triblive.com following the first weekend of camp, we learned that Burns intercepted a Ben Roethlisberger pass intended for Brown and took it the distance. Later, Burns intercepted yet another pass intended for Brown during a two-point conversion drill--backup quarterback Landry Jones was the victim this time around.
”There’s a certain time in the play where you feel like it’s coming to an end,” said Burns of his second interception courtesy of Triblive.com. “I felt that and took my shot. Some times, the guy may miss or could have broken out. This time, he broke in, and I made a play on the ball.”
Football instincts? A great sign from a young corner. That means he could possibly be getting it, this whole cornerback-playing-on-an-island thing.
All throughout the spring, and before the start of training camp, many were predicting second-year man Cameron Sutton might possibly take Burns’ job. And while Sutton is obviously highly-thought of and looms large in Pittsburgh’s plans for a revamped secondary, you’d hate to see a talent such as Burns unseated so quickly.
And this is why it’s also encouraging that the talk of Burns being unseated has mostly disappeared this summer.
”It’s my third year,” said Burns (again courtesy of Triblive.com). “It’s time to start chipping in and show what I can do.”
If Burns really does make a huge leap this year, opinions on him won’t be so mixed, and at least one area of the Steelers’ defense will be vastly improved.