If there is one player that we’ve hardly talked at all about this year, it would probably be rookie third-round cornerback Justin Layne. In games this year in which the Pittsburgh Steelers have played 20 different players on defense, Layne is one of the few players on either side of the ball with no work at their base position to date.
If I’m not mistaken, the only players on the roster other than specialists who haven’t gotten on the field offensively or defensively yet this season are Isaiah Buggs, who may do so tomorrow, and Chukwuma Okorafor. I’m not including the recently-added L.T. Walton, Paxton Lynch, and Trey Edmunds, since they’ve only been here for a game or less.
Yet the Steelers in no way appear to be disappointed. In fact, they understood when they were drafting him that he would be a player they are going to work with over time. He only played three years in college, and didn’t even start off playing cornerback, but emerged as a very good player for a big school.
“He knows he’s got to work, and he’s working”, said senior defensive assistant Teryl Austin last week, via Brian Batko of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Austin has largely become the de facto defensive backs coach, seemingly playing a larger role in the process than Tom Bradley.
“He’s not letting the fact that he’s not playing scrimmage snaps affect him in other areas”, he went on to say about his youngest player in the group. “He’s going to get called on. We know the season’s long, guys go down, and other guys have to step up. I think when it’s his turn to step up, he’ll be ready”.
The Steelers have already dealt with multiple injuries at the position. Joe Haden has missed time during games, and Steven Nelson is recovering from a groin injury that caused him to sit out the game against the Los Angeles Chargers.
The team had to call upon Artie Burns to start that game in Nelson’s place, and Haden also left by the end, leaving Burns and Cameron Sutton as the starting outside cornerbacks, Mike Hilton in the slot, and Layne the only other player at the position on the bench.
Chances are very slim, admittedly, that the Steelers will ever have to whittle their way that far down the depth chart that Layne has to play this year, as they don’t appear to view him as somebody who is ready to contribute at the level of detail and consistency that they expect.
But every player has an obligation to prepare as though they could be starting every week. From the sounds of it, Layne has shown good practice habits and is putting in the work that coaching staff is asking from him.
We most likely won’t revisit his case meaningfully until the offseason, but his practice habits bode well. In the meantime, he is finding ways to contribute on special teams, even to mixed results.