There is very little debate that when it comes to the success for failure of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense during the 2017 season, much of it rides on the continued growth of former first-round draft pick Artie Burns, the cornerback who ended up starting 12 games, including the playoffs, as a rookie, intercepting three passes and recording 13 additional passes defensed.
His position coach, Carnell Lake, was on Steelers Nation Radio yesterday to discuss a variety of topics, and he talked about how important Burns is to what they are trying to do this year, while also reflecting back on his rookie season.
Speaking about the influx of man coverage during the offseason this year, Lake admitted that the team is “putting a big emphasis on that, just to help us be more diverse as a defense”. He said that “we think we’ve got some guys that can do it—highlighting one guy, Artie Burns, who’s really progressing well in that area”.
It is one thing, of course, to able to play in man coverage, and it is another thing to know how to jam a wide receiver, to stay close to him through double moves, and to understand how, where, and when to redirect him. Lake is liking what he is seeing from that end.
“He’s being physical, he’s challenging Antonio Brown, arguably one of the best receivers in the league, in practice every day”, he said. Burns has talked about relishing that challenge last year, and this year as well, and he is beginning to win more battles. “That’s just going to make him better”, Lake said. “And the more confident he is in covering somebody like [Brown], he should be able to translate that to his competitors when we get ready to start the season”.
It didn’t start off that way, however. Lake notes that Burns struggled to get on the field initially, in part due to injury, and when he did “every team is going to try to attack the rookies”, he said. “And they attacked him. And he learned in some situations—the Baltimore situation, for example, he had a little trouble in that game. He had some trouble in the Miami game early on. But after that he took it to heart and he started progressing”.
He said that that resilience is “what we wanted to see, we wanted to see a guy that we drafted in the first round get into the lineup”. Contrary to conventional wisdom surrounding the Steelers defense, Lake said that his own personal expectation of a first-round pick is that you get him to start.
“I’m going to put you out there and teams are going to try to drown you and see if you can sink or swim”, he said. “And he survived”, he said of Burns as he settled down over the second half of the season. “This year I want to see him drown some players on the other side. That’s kind of where we are with him”.