It is rare that rookies step in and play a major role in the Pittsburgh Steelers defense, but that is exactly what happened in 2016. The trio, which I dubbed the ‘Big 3’ for this article, of Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave will have to make big steps forward in 2017 to transform the Pittsburgh defense from mediocre to great.
BTSC was able to work with Vincent Verhei of Football Outsiders to talk about this very topic, among others which will run in the coming days. His insight on the ‘Big 3’, and which could have the biggest impact this season is certainly noteworthy.
We devoted a lot of our Pittsburgh coverage to this very subject, how the Steelers need some of their good young defenders to improve to great right away.
In a nutshell: Burn's charting numbers were very poor in pass coverage, but we have seen many corners struggle as rookies before improving greatly in their second or third seasons.
Sean Davis showed a lot of potential as a slot corner/safety, kind of like Micah Hyde in Green Bay or Tyrann Mathieu in Arizona, but he must improve his tackling -- his 15 missed tackles were second-most among defensive backs, in less than three-quarters of a season. (Davis played in all 16 games, but only 740 defensive snaps, while Ross Cockrell and Mike Mitchell were both over 1,000.)
The biggest star of the three looks to be Javon Hargrave. We listed him third in our top 25 prospects this year. He should blossom into a "two-and-a-half"-down player, a dominant run-stuffer who also has enough pass-rush ability that he doesn't automatically need to leave the field on third-and-long.
Artie Burns, to date in training camp, looks to be a very improved player heading into his sophomore season, and although Davis has been hampered with injuries thus far, his experience should only help him make a bigger impact in 2017 alongside Mitchell in the deep secondary.
With that said, it is tough to disagree with Verhei in regards to Hargrave. Hargrave will have a huge role in the Steelers’ 2017 defense, and has flashed the ability to plug the middle, while still being able to get to the quarterback. He may not have the hole-plugging, run-stopping capabilities of Casey Hampton, but has interior pass rush moves which mirror a Geno Atkins to accompany those aforementioned skills. He is a pure combination of the two. Put him alongside Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward, and you suddenly have a very stout defensive line every week for the black and gold in their base 3-4 defense.
Although the secondary has lagged the past few seasons, Hargrave could certainly help his classmates in the back end by getting pressure on the quarterback. Being able to pressure early, or arrant, passes will benefit the team’s turnover ratio, as well as lift up a sagging secondary.
Either way you slice it, and it was made clear by Verhei, the Steelers need their young defenders to step up in a big way in 2017. It could be the difference between an average defense, and a great one.