Artie Burns among changes Steelers plan to make against Patriots, Gronkowski
For the fifth time in his four seasons as Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator, Keith Butler is searching for that elusive defensive strategy that will beat the New England Patriots.
“I think we’ve got a good game plan,” Butler said Thursday.
It’s one that likely will include the re-emergence of Artie Burns as a starting cornerback. Burns confirmed Thursday that he worked with the first-team defense, a sign that he will replace Coty Sensabaugh at right cornerback on Sunday.
Burns apparently is among the changes that coach Mike Tomlin promised on defense after the Steelers extended their losing streak to three games. Cameron Sutton also has spent the week practicing on the first team at slot cornerback in place of Mike Hilton.
Burns hasn’t started in two months, losing his job early in the team’s six-game winning streak.
“I’ve just got to keep working, stay in the lab and take advantage of these opportunities,” Burns said after practice Thursday.
The last time Burns took a defensive snap was on a successful 2-point conversion by the Los Angeles Chargers when tight end Antonio Gates outreached him for the catch. He has played only 10 other defensive snaps since Oct. 14.
“It’s hard to say (what he can do) until you put him in live situations, until it gets for real,” Butler said. “It’s not just out here on the practice field, it’s when he gets out there and it starts counting. We’ll have to wait and see.”
The anticipated cornerback switch is an indication the Steelers will play more man defense against the Patriots, whom they haven’t beaten since 2011, losing the last five matchups counting postseason. Burns is viewed as a better press corner than Sensabaugh.
Burns could be matched up against receiver Josh Gordon provided the Steelers don’t give the assignment to Joe Haden, whose familiarity with Gordon extends to their time as teammates on the Browns. Gordon is averaging 18 yards a catch since his early-season acquisition from Cleveland.
“They’re getting him more and more involved,” Haden said. “He’s a very good deep threat, and he doesn’t care about going across the middle because he’s a big dude. With his speed, he’s very fast and a very good receiver. We have to make sure we keep him in front of us.”
Chris Hogan, who scorched the Steelers in the AFC championship game two years ago, also plays outside with Julian Edelman often lining up in the slot. The Patriots’ top receiver, however, is not a receiver or even tight end Rob Gronkowski. Running back James White leads the Patriots with 76 catches, 674 yards and six touchdowns.
“They pick and choose and try to get mismatches,” Butler said.
The priority is keeping the ball away from Gronkowski, who has 39 catches for 664 yards and eight touchdowns in six career games against the Steelers. That’s especially true after the Steelers were gouged for 116 yards on seven receptions by Oakland tight end Jared Cook in a 24-17 loss Sunday. Five players took turns covering Cook to no avail. Gronkowski could get similar star treatment.
“When you’re playing freaks like that, you’ve got to be damn-near 100 percent right on everything,” safety Sean Davis said. “There is no margin of error playing guys like that, playing teams like that with Tom Brady throwing balls into coverage. … If we’re all dedicated each play to being right, I feel like we’ve got a better chance of making plays.”
Davis was beaten three times by Gronkowski last year on the Patriots’ go-ahead drive in a 27-24 win over the Steelers. Davis has moved to free safety this year, but he could be tasked with shadowing Gronkowski if the Steelers don’t feel comfortable matching rookie Terrell Edmunds against him. Veteran safety Morgan Burnett likely will double up on Gronkowski when the Steelers go to their quarters package that entails using a third safety.
“We’ve got several things we’re going to try to enlist to try to handle him,” Butler said.
So far, under Butler, the Steelers haven’t handled Gronkowski or the Patriots, who have averaged 29.5 points in their four consecutive wins against his defenses.
Burns hopes he can do his part to change that outcome.
“You have to keep growing,” he said. “It’s life. It’s a revolving door. You’ve got to keep moving, keep going forward.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.