When was the last time that the Pittsburgh Steelers entrusted this much playing time to not one, not two, but yet three rookies, all on the defensive side of the ball? I’m pretty sure they even said it during the broadcast of the Colts game, but I don’t remember. I just now that it has been a while.
But that is just what the coaching staff has done this year, and it has been, in large part, by choice. The Steelers are starting Sean Davis at safety because they want play him more than they want to play Robert Golden, who started there this season and is currently healthy, although he did miss some time due to injury earlier in the year.
They are also choosing to start rookie cornerback Artie Burns on the outside over veteran William Gay, who has been the team’s best cornerback, and arguably their best defensive back, if not one of their defensive players overall since he returned to the team, because they value certainly qualities that he brings to the table, offset by some of the growing pains he is working through.
Finally, there is the third-round pick, nose tackle Javon Hargrave, who has actually technically been the starting nose tackle all season, except that the Steelers don’t really start a nose tackle, with their base package having become the nickel defense. But, in the wake of Cameron Heyward’s injury, he is playing starter-level snaps now and logging lots of time as a nickel interior pass rusher.
The trio put up some quality work on Sunday last week against the Browns, though not without warts. Burns recorded his second interception of the year, while Hargrave recorded his first sack and recovered a fumble for a defensive touchdown. And that good work continued on Thursday against the Colts.
Davis had a big tackle on the quarterback for a goal line stop on a scramble. Hargrave had another sack in two consecutive games now and got some good pressure at other points of the game as well. All three rookies, in fact, had five tackles apiece in the game, and Hargrave had the sack as a bonus.
To be quite honest, I do not know if the team’s decision to play these rookies as much as they have is in their immediate best interests. Is Davis a better player than Golden? Right now, I wouldn’t say so. Davis certainly doesn’t have Gay’s foreknowledge. Although Burns would be playing a lot anyway given how much time they spend in the nickel. As for Hargrave, there is little choice at this point, since he was already the primary nose tackle, and they were already not getting enough of a rotation along the offensive line.
But for whatever motivation might be behind it, the rookies are playing, and the more they are playing, the more they are producing. They still have a way to go, but at least they are showing glimpses of the sort of players they will be in the future.