Revamped Steelers secondary still a work in progress
PITTSBURGH (AP) — There's a certain kind of joyful mundaneness to Terrell Edmunds' first job out of college.
The Pittsburgh Steelers rookie safety is typically up before dawn and at the team's training facility by 7 a.m., where he spends the 11 or so hours watching film, lifting weights, attending meetings and practicing.
It's much the same when the first-round pick gets back home. Edmunds will place his legs inside a pair of compression sleeves designed to help his muscles recover quickly, flip on his iPad and look at more tape. Typically, Edmunds lets the video run at normal speed. No need to slow it down.
"I just let it play," Edmunds said. "Sometimes I don't look into detail. I'll see what pops up more than once and think 'Oh I saw this before. Who are they throwing it to the most?' Things like that."
Edmunds is a quick study. Thrown immediately into the mix thanks to a preseason injury to free agent signee Morgan Burnett, Edmunds has been a bright spot for an uneven secondary.
Steady if not yet spectacular, Edmunds has earned the trust of defensive backs coach Tom Bradley and head coach Mike Tomlin for his conscientious approach to his work.
"He's gotten better each and every game," Bradley said Tuesday. "The thing that got him three games ago doesn't get him now. Each week there's something he picks up that becomes easier in his repertoire as we progress in this thing."
Edmunds really hasn't had much choice. He was supposed to spend his first season learning behind Burnett. It hasn't quite turned out that way.
The Steelers (3-2-1) signed the former Green Bay Packer to a three-year deal in the offseason, hopeful Burnett could provide leadership and sure tackling, both things in short supply for a group in transition.
Instead, Burnett has spent most of his time in Pittsburgh watching from the sideline thanks to a steady stream of injuries, the latest a groin issue that's forced him to miss each of the past four games.
There is no timetable for when Burnett might be able to return and given Edmunds' rapid development, it's uncertain what role Burnett might fill whenever he is healthy enough to play.
Burnett's status is one of a handful Bradley has been forced to face in his first year on the job. The careful offseason plan he and Tomlin put together to revitalize Pittsburgh's secondary makeover is in tatters. Burnett can't stay on the field.
Cornerback Artie Burns is struggling and Coty Sensabaugh and Cam Sutton — the two most likely candidates to replace the erratic Burns — can't put together enough good stretches to provide a compelling reason to sit Burns down and let him regroup.
"We've got to make a lot of adjustments just based on injuries and the guys that have been able to play," Bradley said. "The things we worked on in preseason practice, we've been unable to play because of the different people playing different positions."
Pittsburgh enters its bye week ranked 27th in passing yards and 29th in passing touchdowns allowed. Not exactly the step forward the organization had in mind when defensive backs coach Carnell Lake stepped away in the aftermath of a playoff loss to Jacksonville in January and veterans Mike Mitchell, Rob Golden and William Gay were released in March .
Bradley is quick to place the blame on his shoulders. He's confident Burns — a standout as a rookie in 2016 — will get his swagger back.
"Artie has to play more consistently, he knows that," Bradley said. "We've got to make sure we concentrate on every play, to get everything right, all the little things."
And maybe the big things too. Burns was beaten badly by Cincinnati's Tyler Boyd in Pittsburgh's 28-21 victory last Sunday, standing several steps behind Boyd as Boyd hauled in a remarkably easy 14-yard touchdown reception. Burns was replaced for a spell in the third quarter, but any long-term solution for the Steelers relies on Burns returning to form.
"I think he'll be fine," Bradley said. "He's got confidence in his ability and things he can do."
If Burns needs inspiration, he doesn't need to look far. Pittsburgh finds itself in the thick of the AFC North race despite its uneven play on defense thanks in large part to veteran cornerback Joe Haden. The 29-year-old kept Atlanta's Julio Jones in check in a 41-17 victory two weeks ago and kept Bengals star A.J. Green out of the end zone.
"Joe's athletic ability is still pretty sharp," Bradley said. "But mentally he gets better as time goes on and I think he understands what people are trying to get done."
It's a path the rest of the secondary is trying to follow. Work — lots of work in some cases — needs to be done, but Bradley believes the communication problems and injury concerns that have hampered his group will level off going forward.
"Playing defense is a lot like driving a car," Bradley said. "When you start out, we're all (hands at) 10 (o'clock) and 2 (o'clock), staring constantly. Then as you start to drive more ... you still see everything but you're able to look around, talk to people and do different things. Now, as time goes on, we'll start to play faster."
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