Prior to the start of Sunday’s game, I posed the question of whether or not we would see the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense make greater use of their six-defensive-back sub-package, the dime defense that they call a ‘quarter’, which features three cornerbacks and three safeties. The team used this defensive look for nine snaps in the opener, including on the entirety of a six-play drive in the fourth quarter.
On Sunday against the Bengals, however, they made very liberal use of the quarter defense, which also happens to mean that rookie first-round cornerback Artie Burns received fairly extensive playing time, something that did not seem to be a likely turn of events once upon a time.
The defense was on the field for 74 snaps versus Cincinnati, and Burns was on the field for 32 of those snaps, or about 42 percent of the time. It is clear that he is their third option at cornerback—or rather fourth, behind Sean Davis—meaning that the trade acquisition Justin Gilbert remains behind in the pecking order, and it will likely stay that way barring an obvious regression from the rookie, whom they evidently want to get on the field.
Burns’ first snap of the game came on a third-and-six play that was the last of the Bengals’ opening drive, lining himself up opposite Brandon LaFell, with A.J. Green isolated on the opposite side of the field. Green was the target on a deep shot on that play that fell incomplete.
Cincinnati went three-and-out on their next drive, and Burns once again came on the field for the third-and-seven snap. He was again on the field for a third-and-six play with the Bengals offense in the red zone, playing off from LaFell, when a check-down to the running back failed to convert.
You can predict the patterning here, in which Burns was used as an outside cornerback during obvious third-down passing situations during the course of the first half. His playing time throughout most of the half was limited to one-snap spurts until the final drive.
He came on to the field on the second play of the drive, but was not targeted until the final snap, when Andy Dalton looked to the back right corner of the end zone for LaFell. Burns was able to tip the pass away on a play that would otherwise have been a touchdown—thus far, the highlight of his very young career.
The second half followed a pattern much in keeping with the first, in which Burns primarily saw his time on obvious third-down passing situations. that came to burn him late in the third quarter, when he drew a light pass interference penalty in the end zone on a third-and-six from the 15.
But the rookie played extensively in the fourth quarter through the Bengals’ final few drives. Unfortunately, he missed a couple of tackles on screens to Giovani Bernard, one of them yielding a 25-yard touchdown. But the playing experience in consecutive snaps is valuable.
Overall, he was targeted three times, giving up one reception for nine yards, recording a pass deflection and a pass interference penalty. A fourth target that yielded 17 yards seemed to be in a zone coverage. He blitzed, he got off a block he made and missed a couple of tackles. And he will be better for every play made and missed.