It was just last week that Head Coach Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers were seriously prepared to re-insert former starting cornerback Artie Burns into the lineup—against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, no less. That plan lasted exactly three plays after Brady hit a deep touchdown pass off a blown coverage.
Even though Tomlin absolved the third-year pro of responsibility for the play, and in fact blamed himself for not getting the appropriate coverage called for the play because he was arguing with the officials about an issue on the previous play, he still chose to bench Burns for the remainder of the game.
And he didn’t see the field on Sunday against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints in the dome, either. Tomlin said that he turned back to veteran Coty Sensabaugh in that instant because of his assignment-soundness, more or less.
In the season finale, however, they are not facing Brady or Brees. They are not even going to be seeing Andy Dalton. Or even A.J. McCarron! They’ll be going up against Jeff Driskel. A 2016 sixth-round pick, he hadn’t played before this year. He is averaging under six yards per pass attempt and has been sacked on 7.3 percent of his dropbacks.
Even though this came is a must-win against the Cincinnati Bengals—not even a win-and-in scenario—it wouldn’t be surprising to me if Tomlin took the chance to give Burns another opportunity to get back into the lineup in some form or fashion.
If he was willing to consider doing it against Brady in what was at the time the biggest game of the Steelers’ season, it’s certainly not unreasonable to imagine that he might be willing to give the former first-round pick another shot in the finale.
Adding a wrinkle to this discussion as well is the fact that the team has to make a decision on whether or not to pick up his fifth-year option this offseason. While it’s rather unlikely at this point that they do so, given that he was benched, it might not hurt if they were able to get one last look at him, and this may be their last game of the season.
A lot of fans have been ready to wash their hands of the 23-year-old. Some have wanted him cut over a year ago. I would be surprised if he doesn’t finish out his four-year rookie contract, personally, unless they manage to trade him as the New York Giants did with Eli Apple, who committed two pass interference penalties with the Saints against the Steelers on Sunday.
It would be really nice if this game were actually meaningless for the Steelers, but it is in fact critical. That makes this change a much tougher sell. Will anybody ask Tomlin about it later today? We’ll see.