As we’ve covered before, even when specifically talking about Artie Burns, run defense is an 11 man job. It doesn’t fall on any one player, especially not someone in the secondary.
But man, it’s hard to watch Burns support the run. And it’s turning too many good runs into explosive ones. Absolutely killing the Steelers.
This is a team that stayed competitive throughout most of the game. But the first straw to break the camel’s back was Rob Gronkowski’s 36 yard touchdown. And a couple of big runs by LeGarrette Blount got the Patriots’ drive moving.
Again, not all on Burns. Not even close. But these are plays Ike Taylor or even William Gay today would shut down. Make the tackle, keep things at an eight yard gain. With Burns, those eight yarders are turning into 20+. And that’s unacceptable.
It isn’t a desire issue. Let’s make that clear. Burns has heart. He’s not Gerod Holliman. And he can be a physical players. We’ve seen him crush dudes in college.
Technically and from an assignment standpoint, the dude is just a mess. That’ll get better with time. But in the short-term, it’s going to keep plaguing this team.
Before thinking about making a tackle, the defense has to be in position to make the tackle. Being physical or a technically sound tackler means nothing if you’re not in the right spot. That’s understanding your role but beyond that, and maybe points to why Burns is getting into some trouble, is understanding where he is in relation to the rest of his defense. His teammates. His help.
That is where we’re seeing issues. Whether in crack/replace against Miami, being asked to adjust his assignment on the fly, or here, in what a lot of coaches call “keeping the cup.”
In other words, knowing where help is at and keeping leverage on the ball carrier.
There’s a really good, four minute video on a drill that helps teach and reaffirm how to keep the cut that I’d encourage you to watch below.
If you couldn’t/didn’t watch, the first step is key.
Where is my help?
Later in the video, he makes a great point about the “near man,” the first one there and in this case, the one who has outside leverage.
“The defensive back to the side, once again, understands, it’s his job to go take a shot and if he does miss a tackle, he misses the tackle in a manner that ballcarrier has to stop his feet and make a drastic cut to his help, or his teammates.”
That’s it. Simple as that. Know where your help is out and react accordingly.
On Blount’s 25 yard burst, Burns’ failed.
I’m not 100% sure what caused Blount to get into the second level free, maybe Ryan Shazier tried to be aggressive and shot a gap, missed, and had no chance to recover. My focus isn’t so much on there for this article. It’s how the secondary is compounding those mistakes made by the front seven.
Blount charges into the second level where he’s met by three different DBs. Artie Burns, Robert Golden, and Mike Mitchell.
Think of it like the three points of a triangle.
Mitchell is the alley defender, coming straight downhill on Blount. He’s the top of the triangle. Robert Golden is to the back’s right and looking to squeeze Blount to the alley while maintaining a hip pocket relationship with him. He is the right corner of the triangle.
Burns is the left corner, looking to funnel the ball to the alley.
And this is where Burns fails. He doesn’t “do his job” as Keith Butler has repeatedly implored his group to do. He’s trying to do too much, gets himself out of position, and disintegrates the entire triangle.
Burns is stalk blocked by Julian Edelman. He needs to maintain outside leverage and keep his outside arm free to funnel Blount inside. And if Blount still bounces it outside, look to defeat the block and make the tackle in a manner, as the coaching video above tells us, forces him to cutback to your help.
In this sense, he is the force defender, again, looking to funnel. Can’t stress that enough.
Instead, Burns ducks inside Edelman’s block, and gives up his outside leverage. It allows Blount a cutback lane away from Burns and the rest of the help, Mitchell/Golden, and to the sideline.
The moment he does that, there’s no more help. No more triangle. Mitchell and Golden are forced to try and react to it, something that should’ve never happened. Mitchell gets tangled up with Edelman, Burns has to work off the block, and Golden is now trailing, forced to recover (he takes a very good angle, maintaining a hip pocket relationship the entire way, this is partially why he is the team’s best tackler).
Blount is free to get the edge and take off down the left side. Burns ends up missing the tackle before Golden and a speedy Ryan Shazier take him down after a 25 yard pickup.
Three plays later, Tom Brady connects with Rob Gronkowski for a touchdown.
The play from end zone and aerial views.
This wasn’t an isolated issue either. It happened in the fourth quarter on an 11 yard gain, again down the left sideline, by Blount.
The Steelers roll Robert Golden into the box. It’s a one-gap assignment. Maybe not in the penetrate and get upfield way we usually think about it but when you get that extra guy in the box, you don’t have to two-gap because of the extra help.
Vince Williams: Strongside A gap
Javon Hargrave: B gap
Jarvis Jones: C Gap
Robert Golden: D Gap
Artie Burns: Force defender
Burns, just like he did against Miami, inexplicably darts inside off the snap and gives up the edge. He thinks Blount is running up the gut but Blount knows there’s nothing there. Eight in the box, one-gapped up.
So he looks to bounce. If Burns is doing his job, he’s keeping the cup and forcing the ball inside.
But he doesn’t, Blount gains the edge, there’s no help available, and it’s an 11 yard gain. Three plays later, Brady again finds Brady for 37, setting up the final score of the game.
Golden looks pretty fed up after the play.
Your look at it.
This doesn’t mean Burns is going to be terrible. Expected rookie woes for such a young, inexperienced player. But it’s a problem. It’s not like Burns is playing great in coverage. It’s been…ok at best. Ross Cockrell is below average versus the run but is assignment sound and his coverage chops are significantly better. The issue isn’t all on him, far from it, but the Steelers might want to take a similar course as they are with Sean Davis. Scale back the playbook, let him sit and learn, and ease him back in.
If it’s me, I’m swapping Burns out for Justin Gilbert in nickel. Gilbert isn’t a substantially better run defender but can’t be much worse. And with the bye week, he should be fully up to speed on this defense. Let Burns play in dime when it’s a lot less likely he’ll have to face the run (as he was at the beginning of the year). And then ease him in as he shows the ability to be more assignment-sound.
By next year, he should be in a much better place. But given the start of its run defense the last two weeks, the Steelers can’t afford doing the same thing much longer.