Kevin Gorman: Artie Burns bounce-back game critical for Steelers

November 14, 2018

Cornerback has become the most critical position for the Pittsburgh Steelers, so it shouldn’t surprise that any conversation about their corners involves criticism of Artie Burns.

Where Burns is trying to bounce back from his fourth-quarter benching against the Cincinnati Bengals by “getting better and winning a Super Bowl,” the Steelers know the latter depends on the former from their 2016 first-round pick.

In a week when his teammates actively campaigned for the Steelers to trade for Arizona Cardinals six-time Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson, and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin suggested Burns smile through the face of adversity, Burns instead responded to trade talk with a stiff upper lip Thursday in the locker room at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

“I don’t really care,” Burns said. “If I get traded, I get traded. I’ll still have a job somewhere else. I’m here to work.”

What if the Steelers trade for a cornerback?

“If they do, they do,” Burns said. “I don’t really pay attention to that.”

Burns spent the bye and this week paying attention to details, with a focus on fundamentals. That was the rap on Burns coming out of Miami, that he had the size and speed but was a raw talent.

Steelers Hall of Fame cornerback Rod Woodson was among his most vocal critics after the Steelers’ 28-21 victory over the Bengals on Oct. 14, especially after Burns gave a 10-yard cushion and backpedaled three steps into the end zone on Tyler Boyd’s 14-yard touchdown catch.

Woodson brought up an interesting point in an interview on 93.7 FM, subscribing to the same suspicion I’ve had about Burns: His greater struggle is with confidence, not technique.

“You’d think all players who are in the National Football League have the utmost confidence in who they are and their ability and they can cover any receiver ... and that’s not the case all the time,” Woodson told 93.7. “A lot of times, I don’t know if everybody always believes in the guy that they see in the mirror. But, at the end of the day, you have to believe in who he is and that he can accomplish and play in this league because if you don’t believe it, it’s not going to happen.

“If he lost it for some reason, can he get it back? Absolutely. He just needs to have a couple good games. All players are going to have some bad games. But they can’t be error repeaters.”

The Artie Burns who challenged Antonio Brown in practice every day, the one who picked off passes from Ben Roethlisberger during training camp has been missing this season. Burns hasn’t been the same since he was benched in Week 3 and started rotating with Coty Sensabaugh.

“There’s a storm, sometimes. You’ve just got to weather it and come back to what you do,” Burns said. “It’s just football. You deal with things. One week, you may be up. One week, you may be down. ... I think corner gets judged the hardest.”

That’s true, and the Steelers have shown the willingness, if not downright desperation, to address positions or players they deem problems. They traded for tight end Vance McDonald and signed cornerback Joe Haden and dealt cornerback Ross Cockrell and receiver Sammie Coates last year -- all signs of a win-now mode.

But the Steelers rank 27th in the league against the pass this season, and they can’t continue to watch Burns allow big pass plays and draw costly penalties. So they are his harshest critics at the moment, especially because they have the most invested in Burns and know giving up on him could be costly for future salary-cap implications.

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler believes Burns has played with better technique the past two weeks in practice, something the Steelers are counting on will translate to Sunday’s AFC North game against the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field.

“It’s a tough position to play in the National Football League because you’ve got to be mentally tough to play that position,” Butler said. “I think Artie will learn from mistakes. ... If you don’t learn from your mistakes, you won’t last long in the National Football League. Any player that stays any length of time in the NFL makes mistakes and either corrects those mistakes or he’s not going to have a job. That’s just the nature of the league. I think Artie is up for that.”

Burns predicted his performance would improve, displaying a willingness to weather the storm and smile in the face of adversity.

His expression, however, never changed.

“It’s a challenge, and I’m going to answer it,” Burns said. “It’s something the coaches want to see me do, something the front office ... I’ll give them something to look for.”

If Burns doesn’t, the Steelers will be looking for his replacement. They are trying to win a Super Bowl and can’t wait for him to get better.

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