You may have seen the report yesterday from Ray Fittipaldo that states that the Pittsburgh Steelers intend to start rookie first-round cornerback Artie Burns over veteran William Gay on Sunday against the Ravens. While this realistically only makes a meaningful distinction on between 20 to 40 percent of the team’s snaps per game, depending on how much they have to use a 3-4 front, the move has some people scratching their heads, so I wanted to try to explore the rationale a bit.
In light of Burns’ recent issues in perimeter containment against the run in recent weeks, it wouldn’t seem to make much sense the throw him into 3-4 alignments, which the Steelers are far more likely to use in order to counter traditionally run-oriented offensive sets. Gay is easily the team’s best run-defending cornerback, so on this ground, I’m not even going to attempt to rationalize the decision.
But one potentially reasonable motivation for making this move may be more about Gay than it is about Burns, in that the coaching staff may want to the veteran cornerback to only have to focus exclusively on lining up in the nickel slot from now on, rather than asking him to bounce between the outside and inside depending on the defensive personnel.
It’s a similar philosophy to mixing and matching along the offensive line when there are injuries. One player in the starting lineup may be better suited to slide over to another position to fill in for an injury to allow the backup to play a position that he is more comfortable with, but at the end of the day, this creates two changes rather than one, and the theory is that the fewer moving parts you have, the fewer chances there are of messing things up. So defining roles may be part of this decision, if it indeed is intended to stick beyond Sunday.
We have also seen all throughout the season really from a variety of beat writers that one thing they have seen from Burns during practice is that he has been consistently getting his hands on passes and recording interceptions.
The Steelers are hurting for interceptions this year, and Gay has already failed to secure a couple of the opportunities that he has had, so perhaps the coaching staff sees giving Burns more snaps as an opportunity to increase their chances of getting a turnover
There’s also the fact that Gay simply has not really had his best season, so they may view limiting him to slot work as no great loss overall. While he has been clearly their best cornerback for the past three seasons, a combination of his own regression and the influx of new talent has started to close that gap.
Add in a simple desire to throw the rookie into the fire and see how he does, and I think this more or less explains the reasoning behind the decision to start Burns over Gay, a decision whose import is greatly neutered by the fact that the defense sees around 70 percent of its snaps with three cornerbacks on the field anyway.