Artie Burns isn’t just looking for a second chance against the Los Angeles Chargers. The Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback wants the second snap he didn’t get last season.
Burns played only five defensive snaps in the final seven games and 15 in the final 10 games for the Steelers last season, after the former first-round draft pick was benched.
Standing on the sidelines didn’t sit well with Burns, so to say he’s excited for an opportunity to start against the Chargers on Sunday is an understatement. Burns wants to prove he can be an every down cornerback again for the Steelers.
“That’s why I came here. That’s what I expect,” said Burns, who has been mostly relegated to playing special teams since the Steelers signed free agent Steve Nelson. “Special teams (were a way) to keep me in there but I always wanted to have a starting role, for sure. That’s part of the reason they kept me here, so I’ve got to go out and fulfill my duties.”
That there is as much, if not more concern about Burns being in the starting lineup against Philip Rivers and the Chargers than undrafted free agent rookie Devlin Hodges starting at quarterback for the Steelers shows how far Burns has fallen.
It wasn’t just that Burns got benched. He got beat regularly. He drew penalties. He looked lost, with constant confusion in communication. Worst of all, the 6-foot, 197-pounder who runs a 4.46-second 40-yard dash, lost his confidence.
But Burns has battled through adversity to position himself as the Steelers’ third cornerback. He rotated with the first-team defense during minicamp and training camp when Nelson or Joe Haden needed a day off, waiting for his opportunity
“Anytime when you’re a competitor in this league and you’re in the position Artie was in, where you’re getting a lot of playing time and have it taken away from you, you can go two ways: You can be upset and pout about it or you can keep grinding and try to get better,” Haden said. “Coach Tomlin has a good saying. He says, ‘I don’t have any non-starters. I just have starters-in-waiting. He feels like if you have a helmet, if you’re active, always be ready. You’re an ankle turn away from being in.”
In this case, it was a groin. Nelson was injured against Baltimore and has been ruled out for Sunday. But Haden doesn’t question whether Burns is capable.
“I think Artie is definitely ready for this moment,” Haden said. “He’s been working his tail off. He’s coming to work every day, grinding and trying to do everything the coaches asked and locked into all of the details as if he’s playing every week.
“I’m just really excited for him and happy he’s going to get the opportunity to go back out there and perform.”
After starting 30 times in a 31-game span between his rookie season and Week 6 last year, Burns was benched for journeyman Coty Sensabaugh. Burns only made one more start all season, playing four snaps against the New England Patriots.
The Chargers game was notable for Burns, especially the ending. With the game tied and Mike Badgley attempting a field goal in the final seconds, the Steelers were called offsides three times. Burns blocked the second attempt, but jumped offsides and missed the ball as Badgley converted a 29-yarder for a 33-30 Chargers victory.
So, there’s no shortage of motivation for Burns, who admits he’s been carrying a chip on his shoulder. The Steelers signed both Haden and Nelson to three-year deals and declined to pick up Burns’ fifth-year option, making him an unrestricted free agent after this season. ESPN even mentioned Burns as one of the NFL’s 10 trade candidates this week, but the Steelers are counting on him to provide coverage against the Chargers.
“It’s about not paying attention to that pressure, not paying attention to your critics, understanding that you’ve got a task to uphold and if offenses are going to pick on you, make sure you step up so they can’t pick on you; you’re picking on them,” Steelers defensive captain Cameron Heyward said. “I totally think he’s ready for this. I want to see the growth. He’s been waiting in the wings for the opportunity. We hope he seizes it.”
Burns says he’s faster, stronger and more confident. He believes he’s ready to start. It means a lot to him, even more if he can execute the way the Steelers expect of their starters.
“I don’t know how the game is going to turn out,” Burns said, “but they’re definitely going to get my best effort.”
While Burns hopes his second chance turns into more snaps, the Steelers have to hope their starter-in-waiting is finally ready to show he can perform up to their expectations.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .
Pittsburgh Steelers cornerbacks Artie Burns, left, and Joe Haden watch from the sideline in the first half of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019, in Foxborough, Mass.