It probably should not be surprising that the report yesterday of Artie Burns being penciled in to start over William Gay at cornerback on Sunday for the Pittsburgh Steelers has drawn a lot of attention, and certainly mixed reactions, with some not understanding the rationale behind it. I have taken a stab at trying to reason it out myself.
But the other wrinkle into this conversation is an echo of a similar conversation that we were having last year: where is the cornerback that the Steelers traded for? In spite of the fact that there were clear and immediate issues at the cornerback position, the coaching staff decided to wait until after a meltdown coming out of their bye week to actually put Brandon Boykin into the lineup.
The line at the time was that the coaching staff was not yet satisfied with his level of understanding of the defense—at least, that seemed to be the chief reason often cited, though there were others—and yet he seemed to be trusted well enough after the secondary was torched for five passing touchdowns in Seattle.
While the secondary may not quite be at that stage yet, it might be fair to ask why Justin Gilbert, whom the Steelers traded for during training camp, has not been more involved in the game plan, perhaps even why he wasn’t a consideration to make the jump into the starting lineup. Burns is a rookie, after all, while Gilbert is in his third season—and Burns even missed most of training camp and the preseason.
It’s actually kind of amusing that the ability to talk about Gilbert in terms of questioning why he isn’t being considered for more playing time is seen as a legitimate conversation to have, given the reputation that he earned for himself during his two seasons in Cleveland, but that is where we are, through a combination of his own personal growth and a lack of improvement in Pittsburgh’s secondary.
According to Chris Bradford, though, the reason Gilbert isn’t playing more is the season reason Boykin wasn’t playing more last season—that is, of course, until he was.
Bradford quoted defensive coordinator Keith Butler saying of Gilbert that “he’s still learning the defense”, even going so far as to point out that the team has coordinated “basic stuff” for him to do “that’s covered in training camp”, which, of course, he missed in Pittsburgh due to the timing of the trade, saying that “he’s trying to catch up in that regard”.
Butler did say that he thinks “he’s getting more and more comfortable, and said “the biggest thing in terms of him playing is tied to him building “more confidence we get in him that he knows what he’s doing”.
Perhaps if the secondary blows another high-scoring game the way that they did last season against the Seahawks, Gilbert will have a better understanding of the defense, and thus a pathway to consistent playing time.