There is an old saying among coaches and people around the game that, generally speaking, you can chalk up your end-of-season win-loss record in part to how many rookies you have in your starting lineup. For every rookie you have starting under you, you can expect to lose one game as a result.
The Pittsburgh Steelers this year have had three rookies playing for them in the starting lineup for more than half the season now, all three representing their top picks in the 2016 NFL Draft, and all of them coming on the defensive side of the ball.
They have not lost a game since all three have been established together in the starting lineup, which officially began in the Week 11 game against the Browns—the first game of their winning streak, which including the postseason, has now gone up to eight games, their longest winning streak in over a decade.
And none of them appear to be all that worried about hitting the proverbial ‘rookie wall’, nor is there an indication of that in their play to date. First-round cornerback Artie Burns, who entered the starting lineup in Week 9, second-round safety Sean Davis, who officially took over at that spot in Week 11, and third-round nose tackle Javon Hargrave, who has been starting all along but has had an increased role since Week 11, has all been playing beyond their level of experience.
That is especially impressive considering that Hargrave was a small-school product who was almost entirely unfamiliar with a quality level of competition, and that Burns was an underclassman who did not play every snap while he was in Miami.
The trio of rookies debuted in the postseason on Sunday for the Steelers, and while none of them blew up the game statistically, they didn’t have to. They all played within the defense and played well. Burns and Davis each registered four tackles, while Hargrave chipped in just one assisted tackle. Much of the heavy lifting had been done by the linebackers, in truth.
The success of this rookie class, and the sustained level of play, I believe, is a notable one, because the Steelers have not had great recent success merging rookies into the starting lineup. Just last season, first-round outside linebacker Bud Dupree talked openly about hitting the rookie wall late in the season after serving as a rotational player all year, and then entering the starting lineup in the final several games.
Perhaps they are feeding off of each other’s energy and momentum to hold one another together, but the continued ‘above the line’ play of the rookies this year has certainly been one of the most notable storylines of the 2016 season.