When he first came into the league, it seemed almost comical, even audacious, that Pittsburgh Steelers first-round cornerback Artie Burns wanted to challenge wide receiver Antonio Brown, a perennial All-Pro talent and arguably the best wide receiver in the game, every day in practice.
And, from the start, it ended up looking comical, with the rookie clearly overmatched by the far more experienced and skilled technician. But nobody is laughing about it anymore a year later as Burns continues to match up with the moneyed playmaker.
Exactly a year to the date, I wrote about how Brown told reporters that Burns not only has to get himself better through practice against the wide receiver—he has the make the wide receiver—Brown—better as well. How in the world is Burns supposed to make Brown better?
Well, I don’t know exactly if that has happened—perhaps it has—but the friendly battle has certainly made Burns better. And he recently talked about what it’s like going against Brown in practice all the time and how it has helped his game.
About what he has learned about the position from covering the All-Pro, Burns said that it is about “being smart about how you attack somebody. That’s what I learned from him a lot. He’s real special. He’s real athletic. He teaches me how to be light on my feet and ready to run”.
That is, of course, exactly what Head Coach Mike Tomlin wants to see from both of his players, but especially from his young starting cornerback, who entered the lineup full-time in the second half of last season, and was able to record three interceptions with 13 passes defensed.
When a reporter recently asked about Burns not backing down from the challenge of going against an All-Pro, Tomlin shot back, “he better not”. He continued, “that’s the nature of the job. We took Artie in round one. If he was backing down from the challenge, I would be concerned”.
As time passes and they get more and more reps going up against one another, of course, it becomes less and less of a challenge for Burns. If he can run against Brown—no matter how many individual battles that he might lose to him in practice—it will only make him that much better for when he goes up against the wide receivers he will be facing on Sundays.
Being thrown into the fire, albeit in practice, by going up against Brown pretty much from day one, and in staying with that challenge day in and day out, overcoming the discouragement of being made to look bad so frequently early on, has helped to shape the young football player into the confident cornerback that he is now, who is looking to take the next step in his game in year two.