The Pittsburgh Steelers have, by and large, been on an upward swing over the course of the past two and a half seasons after they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and failed to win a postseason game in four straight years.
Last season saw them gain that elusive playoff victory, though they came up short with about three minutes left in the Divisional round a week later. Their offense took off, and their defense improved, showing playmaking ability and opportunism.
But there are still a lot of unanswered questions facing the team as we crack into free agency territory. As an exercise, we like to take a stab at some of those questions, presenting arguments for the pros and cons of each side of the coin. This is the optimist’s take on the following question.
Question: Should the Steelers try to get first-round cornerback Artie Burns on the field as soon as possible by letting him play to his natural strengths?
The Steelers spent the 2016 NFL Draft adding to the secondary to highest-drafted cornerback that they have taken in about two decades when they selected Artie Burns with their 25th-overall selection in the first round. That does not, however, necessarily mean that they drafted an immediate starter. They were clear in referring to him as clay to mold after the draft.
The Steelers have acknowledged that the young underclassman still has some developing to do, particularly regarding the fact that he was not very experienced in playing in off and zone coverages, let alone in terms of excelling in those roles.
Pittsburgh just to happens to have been a team that utilized zone coverages more than any other team last season, and have regularly been among the defenses that most rely on zone coverages, or a mix of coverages, even when they had Ike Taylor often playing on a man.
But the Steelers did regard Burns as a player who has perhaps the best bump-and-run coverage assets in his draft class, or so they have said. And it could be that they have relied so heavily on zone coverages because they have not had the assets to do otherwise very often.
Burns may be facing a learning curves as he heads into his first professional season, attempting to learn an NFL defensive playbook for the first time in his career, but part of Keith Butler’s mandate in inheriting the defense was to be able to better simplify his schemes so that players can contribute earlier.
And, after all, a player like Cortez Allen, fully regarded as a project when he was drafted, was able to contribute in some capacity as a dime back in his rookie season. Joe Burnett and Shamarko Thomas also saw the field as rookies in their nickel defense.
There is certainly nothing saying that Burns can’t contribute in some capacity this year. And given that he is only one of two cornerbacks with size to play on the outside, it would make sense to give him some opportunities to make an impact.
And they did not hesitate to rotate cornerbacks late last season, either, adding another variable in the equation that leads to paving the way for some early playing time for the rookie. Add to the fact that they have more often than not lately made the effort to play their rookies sooner, and we might not wait as long as some think before he plays a relatively significant role on occasion, even if not as a starter.