When it has come to the Pittsburgh Steelers defense over the last few years, the best laid plans haven’t always worked out as expected. Sometimes they worked out great, sometimes their plans have been a total bust, and sometimes they have come together in the most unexpected ways. The latter would seem to best describe the plans for rookies Javon Hargrave, Artie Burns, and Sean Davis, who have received a lot more playing time much sooner than originally expected. The plan for these three was to work them in slowly, putting them in situations where they could succeed and build up their confidence, but due to a rash of injuries their time is now. In spite of the growing pains that Hargrave, Burns, and Davis have each experienced, believe it or not, the defense has gradually improved.
The defense wasn’t expected to be the strength of the Steelers this season, but it was thought that the performance of the secondary would see improvement over last season. However, the members of the secondary failed to record an interception until Artie Burns picked off Joe Flacco in week 8. Burns currently leads the team with 2 picks and ranks second with 9 passes defended, and although he has gotten burned on more than a few occasions, he has also made quite a few spectacular plays that show the promise of things to come. As the season has progressed, Artie Burns is looking more comfortable and more confident with what he is doing, and it’s starting to show. Another nice surprise with Artie Burns is that he’s turned out to be a much more willing tackler than he has been given credit for.
Sean Davis, who spent time at both safety and corner at Maryland, was practicing as a slot corner until an early season injury to Robert Golden had him moving back to safety. Davis has played a significant amount of snaps in all eleven games this season, making three starts as well, giving the Steelers a big, physical presence in the middle of the secondary. While Sean has made some typical rookie mistakes, he has been relatively consistent throughout the season so far. As of late though, Davis has made some pretty stellar plays to end drives, including a big hit keeping Colts quarterback Scott Tolzein out of the endzone. On the season, Sean Davis has 35 tackles and 2 passes defended, one of which was in the back of the endzone on third down. Like Artie Burns, Davis looks like the game is starting to slow down for him, letting his natural abilities shine through a little more each week.
Javon Hargrave has been just what the Steelers were looking for when they selected him out of South Carolina State in last May’s NFL Draft. He’s been versatile enough to play every position along the line, and productive enough to be counted on to help fill the void left by Cam Heyward’s season ending injury. Hargrave has been solid against the run, while facing double teams, and has been able to get pressure on the quarterback. Javon has gotten in on 18 tackles to this point in the season, and has recorded 2 quarterback sacks. He is yet another Steelers rookie who is going to benefit greatly in the future from all of the action he is seeing in his rookie year.
For years, the Steelers fanbase has been calling for the coaching staff to get their younger players on the field sooner rather than later, and this year there are three rookies seeing a large amount of playing time. There is always going to be a fair amount of growing pains for a young defense playing with three rookies, but when those rookies are Javon Hargrave, Artie Burns, and Sean Davis, there is also the promise of a defense with a bright future that’s not too far away. After the first seven games of the season, the defense had 9 sacks and 2 interceptions. Over the last four games, with the help of Hargrave, Burns, and Davis, the defense has stepped it up, recording 15 sacks and 5 interceptions. If the last four games are an accurate indication, the defense should continue to improve over the rest of the season, with all three rookies playing a critical role in Steelers postseason run.