We learned over the course of this week that the Pittsburgh Steelers are working the alter their nickel defense, having grown to a level of comfort in rookie first-round cornerback Artie Burns sufficient enough that they believe he can be their nickel defender, which is essentially a demotion of fellow rookie, second-round defensive back Sean Davis.
Davis opened the season as the Steelers’ slot defender, though he was not their first option. He had his ups and downs, but has also dealt with injuries, even though he played extensively last week, while Burns did not. The coaching staff wants to pare down Davis’ responsibilities, however, and they are now comfortable with their cornerback front to make the move, at least temporarily.
As mentioned, Burns didn’t get a lot of work against the Jets, just a handful of snaps, really, so it is a small sample size from which to discern, but I do think we can get a little something out of taking a look at a few of his snaps from last week as a preview of what is to come.
The first play I want to take a look at comes early in the second quarter, the Steelers checking Burns in on a second and 17 play and the Jets showing a four-receiver set. The first-rounder took the outside guy on the right side of the defense, but he did a good job of keeping his eyes in the backfield, picking up the screen pass and breaking on the play, and getting in on the tackle even though he was not credited for it. Note: Burns is on the bottom of the screen here.
On the next play, setting the Jets up with a long third and nine to convert, New York went five wide, with Burns on the outside of the right of the defense, playing off coverage. The two receivers to his side crossed routes, with the outside receiver cutting to the inside of the field, but Burns did a nice job of following and staying with him with his speed, chasing him down and making the tackle with three yards to spare ahead of the first-down marker.
Early in the second half, the Jets found themselves once again in a third and nine, about to go three and out. Showing a 1×3 split, Burns, as usual was on the far player on the defensive right side, playing off coverage. The rookie was just one cog in a quality coverage look that gave the quarterback nowhere to throw down the field as the pressure got to him for a sack. Note: Burns is at the bottom of the screen here.
Later in the quarter, the Jets looked to be in business with a second and one, but Jarvis Jones broke up the pass at the line of scrimmage. Even if he had not, however, Burns read the play well and immediately broke on the flat route, looking like he had a chance to stop the play for no gain had the ball actually arrived to its intended destination.
It is true that Burns came in here as a fairly raw prospect, and that still holds true to an extent. But he has made major strides since missing most of training camp and the preseason due to injuries. He is not that yet, but has shown encouraging signs. As long as his tackling efficiency stays on an upward trajectory, he will probably retain his nickel role.