1. A lot on the line
Sunday’s game could, theoretically, play an immense role in determining the future of Artie Burns with the Pittsburgh Steelers. While it’s typically shortsighted to put too much stock into one individual game, it’s almost impossible to ignore the magnitude by which Burns’ performance against the New England Patriots could shape his career going forward.
The Steelers must make a decision this coming spring on if they want to pick up Burns’ fifth-year option before he begins his fourth NFL season in 2019. This past year, the rate for the fifth-year option for a cornerback taken outside the top 10 picks (Burns was picked No. 25 in 2016) was almost $9.1 million, a number that will only increase this coming year.
Let’s say Burns gets beat for a few big plays/touchdowns Sunday and therefore gets benched again. There’s seemingly no conceivable way the Steelers could consider committing a (likely) eight-figure future salary to him, right?
On the other hand, how about turning that hypothetical 180 degrees: Burns has a solid game in a Steelers win, therefore regains his starting spot and helps the Steelers into the playoffs.
With Joe Haden entering his 30s, Coty Sensabaugh an impending free agent and nothing else in regards to a proven NFL outside cornerback on the current roster, how could the Steelers not pick up Burns’ fifth-year option this spring?
2. The 100/1,000 club
Barring injury, the Steelers are likely going to finish the season with a pair of 100-catch, 1,000-yard wide receivers in JuJu Smith-Schuster (sitting at 91 catches and 1,234 yards through 13 games) and Antonio Brown (86 and 1,063). Assuming Browns gets 14 more receptions and Smith-Schuster nine over the next three games, they will become the first set of Steelers teammates to hit those single-season milestones.
And as it stands now, just four other WR duos in NFL history (and five teammates overall) have pulled the 100/1,000 trick – although the race is on against Minnesota’s Adam Thielen (103/1,236) and Stefon Diggs (88/915) as to whom will get there next.
The most recent 100/1,000 teammates were Denver’s Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas in 2014. Sanders also is part of the second-most catches among a pair of Steelers in a season: 177 combined with Brown in 2013, tied with Brown and Smith-Schuster this season.
The Steelers’ record for receptions in a season by a pair of teammates is Brown and Le’Veon Bell (212) in 2014. The most by a pair of Steelers wide receivers in a season is 190 by Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress in 2002. Both are in jeopardy.
3. Ringing the Bell
Le’Veon Bell, as is well known, sat out this season. Judging by uniform number and production alone, one might have thought he perhaps was traded to the Giants.
New York rookie Saquon Barkey is doing quite the Bell impersonation at just 21 years old. The Penn State rookie with the similar body type and skillset to the erstwhile Steelers running back is arguably having a season that even the two-time All Pro Bell never matched.
With three games left in the season, Barkley has 1,124 rushing yards, a 5.4 per-carry average, 78 catches, 629 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. If he keeps that pace over the final three games, Barkley will finish with 1,383 rushing yards, 96 catches, 774 receiving yards, 16 touchdowns and 2,157 yards from scrimmage.
In Bell’s five years in the NFL, he never had a season in which he matched what Barkley is on pace to do as a rookie in regards to rushing yards, yards per carry, catches or touchdowns. And only once each (both in 2014) did Bell surpass Barkley’s projected 2018 production for receiving yards (854) or yards from scrimmage (2,215).
4. And Gronk is next…
A lot has been made about how the Steelers will defend Rob Gronkowski on Sunday. The Steelers have tried just about everything over six prior meetings against the big tight end, mostly to no avail. Similarly, they apparently tried just about everyone to stop a tight end just last week – also, to no avail.
Oakland’s Jared Cook caught seven of nine targeted passes for 116 yards against the Steelers seven days before Gronk came to town. According to Pro Football Focus, the Steelers employed five different players as the primary coverage defender responsible for Cook. Each of them –Terrell Edmunds, Jon Bostic, Morgan Burnett, Mike Hilton, and L.J. Fort – allowed Cook at least 15 receiving yards.
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.