When the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals take the field today, one of the less obvious but more intriguing angles in the game will be how Pittsburgh’s rookie defensive backs fare against Cincinnati’s rookie wide receivers. The Steelers have two starters in the secondary in their rookie seasons, while the Bengals have one, but use three.
On the Steelers’ side, of course, is right cornerback Artie Burns, who was just barely starting to get playing time as a dime back for Pittsburgh way back in the second game of the season. The first-round pick has since taken over a starting job and leads the team with three interceptions.
Joining him is second-round safety Sean Davis, who has taken sole authorship of the starting strong safety spot over the course of the past month. Prior to that, since the bye week, he began rotating in that spot. Way back in September, however, he was serving in the capacity of the slot cornerback.
As for the Bengals, their rookie second-round draft pick, wide receiver Tyler Boyd, is in the starting lineup by virtue of the injury suffered by A.J. Green, but he has been playing a prominent role throughout the entire season.
On the year, the Pittsburgh product has caught 48 passes for 526 yards, though he only has one touchdown up to this point. He has been especially productive of late, catching 21 passes for 231 yards and his lone touchdown over the course of his past four games.
Boyd had one of his biggest games of the season back in Week Two against the Steelers, during which he caught six passes—tied for the most in a game on the season—for 78 yards, which he has only bettered by one yard since then. That game ended with him fumbling late and the Steelers recovering, though I still question whether or not that call was accurate.
But it’s not just Boyd. In Green’s absence, a pair of rookie late-round or undrafted players in Cody Core and Alex Erickson have been seeing an increased role. In limited snaps, Erickson has caught a pass in each of the past four games—and his only other reception was for 20 yards against Pittsburgh.
As for Core, while he has yet to see a lot of targets, he is starting to see the playing time. He had just an eight-yard reception last week, but he had two the week before, including a 50-yard catch. Core is a 6’3” guy out of Mississippi that they have been talking about since training camp.
It will be up to the Steelers’ secondary—in which half of the starters are rookies—to handle the Bengals’ young wide receiver group, outside of veteran Brandon LaFell.
Of course, unlike the Bengals, the Steelers also have Javon Hargrave making plays on defense. Cincinnati has two defensive rookies sitting on injured reserve drafted in the top four rounds, while a third-round linebacker has failed to crack their rotation in a meaningful way.