Maybe I was just having flashbacks to watching episodes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with my son as he was growing up, but a couple of the Steelers players sure did remind me of our favorite talking turtles last season.
Chris Boswell and Artie Burns were brothers from another mother in 2018. Their seasons were almost mirror images of each other, but definitely not in a good way. Both players were being counted on to continue the upward trend of their careers and help the Steelers, coming off a 13-3 season, take the next step toward a Super Bowl championship. Instead both players struggled right out of the gate and imploded. With their confidence shot, they retreated to the inner sanctuary of their protective shells. They finished their disastrous seasons about as useful as a doorstop or paperweight. Their NFL futures are very much in doubt.
Both men can thank their lucky stars for the fact that their current salaries and perceived potential have afforded them their second chances. The Steelers are coming off a 9-6-1 season were one additional win would have had them participating in the playoffs. The failures of both men, especially Boswell, directly contributed to the Steelers missing the post season. Many players in similar situations find themselves unemployed. Boswell and Burns are presently on the roster, but understandably with a much shorter lease.
I make the turtle shell reference because both men appear trapped in their own noggins. The Steelers know they are in there, peaking out. The question is how do you get them to get out of their own heads and play to their abilities? They either break out of their mental shells and compete, or they are in danger of being turtle soup. It's now or never.
Chris Boswell's fall from grace was prodigious. Boswell was arguably the second best kicker in the league, behind Baltimore's Justin Tucker, the season prior. Chris was making last second, game winning kicks with regularity, seemingly every week. He parlayed that reliability into a new five year contract and as much security as any NFL kicker can realistically hope for. The life of an professional place kicker is beset by stress and expectations. Cue the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately crowd. All the game winning kicks of the years prior meant nothing during last season's repeated failures. Just make one of those last second opportunities and the Steelers would have been playoff bound and maybe the end of the season horror show could have been averted.
Kickers are paid to do one thing. Kick the football through the goalposts. Any kicker that can't perform that responsibility with near perfect regularity has no real value to their team. With kickoffs slowly being regulated out of the game, that statement is more true today than ever before.
Hopefully Boswell has put last season behind him and has regained his lost confidence. The Steelers still have a sizeable investment in the player, and seem to be rather fond of the man. A bounce back season from Boswell could be just what the doctor ordered to get the Steelers back on top the division where they belong, especially early in the schedule when the offense may still be finding their footing with all the new additions.
The second most surprising development last season, after Boswell's struggles, was the regression of Artie Burns game. I fully expected that the trio of Haden, Burns, and Hilton would offer the Steelers some stability at the cornerback positions, with Sutton and Sensabaugh providing solid depth. I also predicted that the addition of Coach Bradley would produce positive results. While the jury is still out on that last prediction, I sure was wrong about Artie Burns.
Burns couldn't seem to trust his reads and appeared to be in a constant state of confusion, often finding himself hopelessly beaten in a trailing position. His impressive athleticism was nowhere to be seen as he was paralyzed by the fear of failure. He found himself firmly planted on the bench whenever the defense took the field, and he became an immediate target the moment any QB seen him step between the lines. The low point occurred when Burns was torched by tortoise slow Antonio Gates, who resembles a middle aged father playing backyard football with the family after Thanksgiving dinner, on a key two point conversation.
So where does Burns go from here? If he can somehow find his way back from the abyss and regain his lost confidence, he will be given every opportunity to make the roster. The Steelers could really use a bounce back season from Burns. Nelson is a proven performer, but he will have to learn the defense just like any other newcomer. Layne is young and talented, but that is on paper. Haden isn't getting any younger, and has proven injury prone. Burns has more experience with the Steelers defense than any cornerback presently on the roster. If Burns can find a way to utilize that experience in a positive way on the field he could prove to be a valuable component on a Pittsburgh Steelers defensive revival.
All reports thus far about both players coming out of OTA's and minicamp have been positive, thankfully. One things for sure, this upcoming training camp bears extreme importance for both players and will directly impact the future success of the Pittsburgh Steelers.