Steelers' Artie Burns gets starting job back … only to get benched again
After playing 11 defensive snaps over the previous seven games, former Pittsburgh Steelers No. 1 cornerback Artie Burns was back in his customary role as the starting left cornerback at practice last week.
As part of their gameplan for stopping the New England Patriots, Steelers coaches wanted defensive backs adept at man-to-man coverage and those who could play a physical style. That describes Burns well, so Sunday he was back in a starting lineup where he was for 35 consecutive starts until being benched in the second half of an Oct. 14 win at Cincinnati.
Burns’ latest stint as a starter lasted just four snaps. After being on the field for a 63-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Chris Hogan, Burns was benched again in favor of Coty Sensabaugh.
“Just as we got into the game, particularly when we gave a play up early,” coach Mike Tomlin said, “I thought ‘24’ (Sensabaugh) with his veteran experience would be a little bit steadier.”
After the game, Tomlin insisted Burns wasn’t to blame for the touchdown, instead blaming himself for harping on a too-many-men-on-the-field flag his defense drew on the prior snap.
Hogan’s score, which was New England’s only touchdown of the game, came when three defenders — including Burns — followed Josh Gordon and no one ran with Hogan. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, no defender was within 19 yards of Hogan at the time of his catch — the most open any player on any team has been in any game over the past two seasons.
“That play wasn’t even (Burns’) fault, so I think I want to be clear in saying that,” Tomlin said. “I accept responsibility that it was our fault. I was too busy arguing a sequence of events prior to that really to make sure we had proper communication in that sequence, so we essentially spotted them seven.”
On the Patriots’ next possession, Burns took the field with the rest of the defense. But moments later, Sensabaugh ran onto the field, and Burns ran off.
“The DB coach (Tom Bradley) told me to go in, so I just went in,” said Sensabaugh, a seven-year veteran of 41 NFL starts.
Sensabaugh was inactive for Week 1 but gradually began to siphon playing time away from Burns, eventually earning starts in the past seven games. But during practice last week, Burns got the first-team reps.
“Whatever this team asks of me, I try to deliver week in and week out and just go from there,” Sensabaugh said.
During the first five possessions after Sensabaugh entered the game, the Patriots punted. They managed just three passing plays of more than 13 yards.
Similarly, the Steelers practiced last week with Cameron Sutton taking first-team reps at slot corner in lieu of the two-year starter Mike Hilton. Also similar to the Burns/Sensabaugh situation, the Steelers abandoned the Sutton experiment after the botched coverage on Hogan.
Where the similarities ended, though, is Sutton got additional snaps later in the game. Burns did not.
That could ripple into Burns’ future with the team. But Sunday, Tomlin was careful to defend Burns.
When Burns jogged off the field to be replaced by Sensabaugh, Tomlin was waiting for him on the sideline. The two had what appeared to be a friendly chat during which Tomlin used supportive body language.
The idea could be to salvage whatever confidence Burns has left in case the Steelers need him again this season.
“Artie had a good week’s prep,” Tomlin said. “Just really felt good about ‘24’ and his ability to do some of the veteran things that is going to required when your jockeying and playing a ‘pace’ game against a group like that. So appreciate Artie’s efforts and his good week work.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at email@example.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.