Artie Burns was answering questions about living up to the expectations of a first-round draft pick who was benched last season when a smile came across his face and his eyes lit up.
Burns interrupted an interview to reach out and high-five his 4-year-old son, A.J., who arrived at his locker with Burns’ teenager brother, Jordan, at Pittsburgh Steelers headquarters.
It was a reminder that, for Burns, family comes before everything. After losing his father to a 25-year prison sentence for drug trafficking and his mother to a heart attack, Burns became the provider for his family.
By the time the Steelers drafted in 2016, Burns already was a father figure to his younger brothers and a father to a young son, roles that were thrust upon him without a choice.
“It definitely molded me,” Burns said. “It’s definitely had a lot of effect on what I do and how, and my beliefs. That’s just life.”
So you would think this holiday is a special one to Burns.
And you would be wrong.
“I don’t celebrate Father’s Day,” Burns said. “You’ve got to appreciate people year-round. That’s part of my belief. It’s a family thing. Everything I do, every action all ties in together. It’s not one day where I appreciate you. You show appreciation every day.”
Burns has been showing his appreciation for the Steelers in an unorthodox way, attending coaches meetings throughout voluntary organized team activities and mandatory minicamp to prove to that he is willing to be accountable.
It’s a sign of his maturity that Burns has approached this as a make-or-break spring. The Steelers did not pick up his fifth-year option, making him a free agent in 2020. So, Burns sat in on meetings with the coaches, learning not only his responsibilities on defense but that of every one of his teammates.
“Artie understands the urgency of his circumstance and situation,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, “and he’s taking appropriate action.”
It’s also uncommon action. This isn’t something Steelers cornerbacks typically do, but Burns isn’t your typical Steelers cornerback. He was their first-round pick, No. 25 overall, and was supposed to be the solution at a position of dire need.
Living up to his first-round billing is motivation for Burns.
“Definitely,” Burns said. “They picked me in the first round, so it’s something on them and something on me, too – a lot of expectations.”
Despite his size and speed, Burns was as raw as projected coming out of Miami. He was thrust into a starting role for which he wasn’t ready as a rookie, and his flawed technique on his first step was soon exposed. That led to penalties and poor coverage, and Burns went from starting corner to splitting time with Coty Sensabaugh to being relegated to special teams.
That’s on Burns for his poor play. But it’s on Tomlin, too. Burns was his guy, and at a position Tomlin once coached. The Steelers should bear some responsibility for not doing a better job of developing Burns, who has been coached by Carnell Lake to Tom Bradley and, now, Teryl Austin.
So, sitting in on the coaches meetings was a good start. Playing better in practices was a step forward. His teammates took notice that Burns was rededicating himself to the game.
“It just shows that he’s trying to get better,” Steelers cornerback Joe Haden said. “He wants to do better. He understands it’s about your play on the field. These coaches are going to be blatantly honest with you about what you do well, what you don’t do well and what you can do to do better for the team. It speaks a lot to him. Artie is just showing that he wants to be here and be the best he can be.”
You have to wonder if it’s too little, too late. Two years ago, the Steelers drafted cornerbacks Cam Sutton and Brian Allen and invested a three-year, $27 million deal in Haden. This offseason, they signed corner Steven Nelson to a three-year, $25.5 million deal and drafted Justin Layne in the third round.
But the Steelers are an injury away from needing Burns, who just turned 24. A 6-foot, 197-pound corner with 4.4-second speed, he’s worth the $800,000 roster bonus he’s set to receive in late July – if he can improve his technique and rediscover the confidence he once showed with swagger at The U.
“He’s getting it back,” Haden said. “He’s coming in here focused, locked in and he’s doing the little things. He’s starting off with his stances and hand placement – because he’s a great press corner: He can run with the very fastest and has athletic ability. It’s just believing in yourself and going back to the basics.”
That hasn’t gone unnoticed by Bradley, who said he was “impressed” by how Burns is focusing on everything from his technique to knowing the minute details of the defense. And it says something about Burns’ desire that he humbled himself to be broken down and built back up again.
“I just did it on my own,” Burns said. “It’s just me being accountable to myself, to make sure that I’m on my details. It’s helped me know what the guys around me should be doing and how they should be thinking. It all ties together. Playing corner, you feel like you’re on an island out there sometimes, but it all ties into one. It’s all 11 guys out there, and we have to be accountable to each other and ourselves.”
That Burns is showing his appreciation to the Steelers with appropriate action isn’t just a last-ditch effort to live up to expectations. It’s about tying his actions together in everything he does – and for everyone he does it for.