Confidence shaken, Steelers CB Burns focusing on basics
PITTSBURGH (AP) — There is a certain swagger required to play cornerback in the NFL, a quality Artie Burns picked up long before the Pittsburgh Steelers selected him in the first round of the 2016 draft.
And for the first time Burns can remember, that swagger is gone, lost amid a barrage of blown coverages and missed opportunities that have temporarily cost him his starting job.
Penciled in as a shutdown corner for the next decade after a solid rookie season, the mild slide Burns experienced in 2017 has extended into something far more troubling three weeks into his third year in the league.
"I don't feel like I'm really confident now," Burns said. "I've got to get back to the basics and make the plays I know I can make. Nothing spectacular. Just getting roasted every play."
Maybe not every play, but it certainly feels like it to Burns, who is currently sharing time with Coty Sensabaugh and Cam Sutton for the Steelers (1-1-1).
All three expect to be tested early and often on Sunday night when the Baltimore Ravens (2-1) and revitalized quarterback Joe Flacco visit Heinz Field.
And why not?
Pittsburgh's pass defense is among the league's worst through three weeks. The Steelers have allowed 15 pass plays of 20 yards or more and their 10 passing touchdowns given up are tied with New Orleans for the most in the NFL.
Though there's plenty of blame to go around — from a pass rush that has fluctuated between dominant and nonexistent to veteran cornerback Joe Haden's hamstring injury that forced him to watch Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes carve up the Steelers in Week 2 — Burns' struggles have been perhaps the most visible.
The thoughtful, soft-spoken 23-year-old looks tentative at times and overmatched at others.
During Monday night's victory over Tampa Bay, he found himself futilely clutching at Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans while Evans hauled in a 51-yard pass.
It's those plays — and not the exquisitely timed hit that forced a Tampa Bay fumble during Pittsburgh's game-turning second quarter — that linger with Burns.
"Every time I expect to make a play on the ball," he said. "I don't care who it is or what the situation is. I'm supposed to make that play. That's the standard they hold me to."
A standard Burns knows he is not meeting. Then again, neither are his teammates. Like Burns, Sensabaugh and Sutton have struggled to distinguish themselves and coach Mike Tomlin plans to continue to use all three in a rotation until the steady stream of big plays allowed stops.
Sensabaugh, however, is a journeyman of sorts. Pittsburgh is his fourth stop since 2015. Sutton is basically a rookie after injuries limited him to five games last season.
Burns by comparison became the first cornerback the Steelers selected in the opening round of the draft in nearly 20 years when they grabbed him with the 25th overall pick in 2016.
The early returns were promising. He quickly played his way into the starting lineup and when Pittsburgh traded for Haden at the end of training camp last summer it appeared the Steelers had the kind of fast, physical corners they'd been searching for since Ike Taylor's retirement in the spring 2015.
Burns remains plenty fast but admits he's regressed. Haden, who has developed a close friendship with Burns over the past 13 months, said Burns is "doing everything he can" to get it fixed. He's watching tape. He's focusing on the fundamentals. At some point, both Burns and Haden believe that work will translate on the field.
Burns is hardly the first player to have playing time taken away early in his career. Taylor already had a Super Bowl ring when he was benched in 2006. Steelers All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown took two-plus years to fully morph from sixth-round project to starter.
Yet this is the first time in Burns' football life he can remember being told to take a seat.
"I'm not used to this, personally," he said.
How long will it last depends on when — or if — Burns can regain his form and his swagger. Haden is eager to do what he can, but understands some lessons need to be learned on their own.
"He's been playing corner for a long time too," Haden said. "I'll try to help him out with it too. But Artie knows what's up."
NOTES: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (abdomen), CB Mike Hilton (elbow) and S Morgan Burnett (groin) were limited in practice on Thursday. ... G David DeCastro was a full participant for the first time since fracturing his right hand in Week 1 against Cleveland. RT Marcus Gilbert (hamstring) and LG Ramon Foster (coach's decision) were also full-go on Thursday.
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