Steelers' DC says Artie Burns 'about 50-50' against Antonio Brown

When Artie Burns, left, is in there, he makes it easier for Sean Davis and the rest of the Steelers secondary to make big plays. AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

LATROBE, Pa. -- Cornerback Artie Burns' return to the practice lineup seemed to give the Pittsburgh Steelers defense a boost during Sunday's training camp session. The offense looked a tad off as long-absent Martavis Bryant worked to get his timing down, but Burns got a pick in one-on-ones and a pass breakup in seven-man work. Corners Coty Sensabaugh, Brian Allen and Brandon Dixon recorded interceptions against the first, second and third teams.

These all are good signs, because as of Sunday afternoon defensive coordinator Keith Butler was fed up with seeing Antonio Brown beat his corners over and over.

To be sure, Brown will always get his to some degree. Burns is the best man for the job. But as Butler points out, one man's not enough.

"They can't let him win all the time. We have to win some of them," Butler said about guarding Brown. "Artie was doing that. He was about 50-50 with him, I think, before he got hurt. The guys covering [Brown] now, it's an easy thing for him. He says it's easy for him. It pisses me off when he says it's easy for him. I like to be competitive.

"I want AB to be as good as he can because he's going to doggone help us. We've got to have somebody who can get close to covering him. Artie was probably our closest one, but we have to have more than one to do it."

Butler acknowledges Burns' ability to play press-man coverage is one of several catalysts necessary for Pittsburgh's defensive success. All three of last year's top rookies -- Burns, safety Sean Davis and tackle Javon Hargrave -- must take a step for the rest of the defense to do the same, Butler said.

But Burns' style of play might provide the most flexibility. And Butler once again sounds ready to mix and match man coverages with his zone concepts.

"It means we can play different defenses, we can put a little bit of pressure on the quarterback. It's not just going to be an easy throw-and-catch for the quarterback to pick it up and throw it outside, throw it inside against a zone defense or stuff like that," Butler said. "We've got to be able to change up a little bit."

Luckily for Butler, his front three of Hargrave, Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt got major push in the preseason opener against the New York Giants, helping T.J. Watt record his first two career sacks. Butler said those three, plus veteran Tyson Alualu and L.T. Walton, provide the most line depth he has had in a while.

Butler likes to get natural pressure (i.e., no blitzing), so a stout, healthy line is a good start.

"We're still in the making. We're far from being a great defense," Butler said. "If you want to win it all, you have to have a really good defense. I don't want to go into the first game like a couple of years ago [with] everyone not having played together."

The Steelers hope their defensive starters -- including safety Mike Mitchell and linebacker Ryan Shazier (lower-body injuries) -- will be back as soon as this week.

A few other Steelers practice notes:

  • Allen is getting better. Not sure if he'll make the 53-man roster, but he's making a push. He's not as much of a project as expected, given his conversion from receiver to corner at Utah. He's an active jammer at the line, his footwork is pretty good and he's a willing tackler. Needs work tracking the ball, but he's improving there, too.

  • Jesse James made possibly the catch of camp in goal-line work. Ben Roethlisberger threw a lob to James, who was well-covered by Davis. The ball hit somewhere between both players and bounced straight up. James positioned himself for the ball and kept both feet in bounds.

  • Joshua Dobbs went 1-of-2 in "seven shots," including a well-timed score to Phazahn Odom. Dobbs had trouble with accuracy Sunday, often throwing the ball too high.

  • Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was back in practice, two days after being evaluated for a possible concussion Friday.

  • Tyler Matakevich has heard his nickname -- "Dirty Red" -- a bunch in recent camp practices, usually as praise for a good play. He has always been solid against the run, but he's improving in pass coverage, which was a problem area in the spring.

  • Bryant looks as fast and strong as advertised, but his timing on routes appears off. That's to be expected. He seemed to have trouble locating the ball, particularly on sideline work. He and Roethlisberger should be able to clean that up soon.