The Year 3 breakout for a first-round pick appeared imminent. The Steelers could pair Burns with veteran Joe Haden to play more man coverage against the league’s top receivers.
Then the season began, and Burns is still trying to wake up from a nightmarish stretch.
Burns looked distraught during a Week 3 media session in which he acknowledged his starting job was in jeopardy. That job went to veteran Coty Sensabaugh, who started against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday Night Football.
Burns and Sensabaugh have played in a rotation the past two contests, with Burns starting off the Week 4 game against the Baltimore Ravens.
Burns is a tall, lanky cornerback with world-class speed, but he’s admitted to undermining those qualities with fluctuating energy levels in practices.
Now he’s taking ownership of his struggles and career, calling this stretch a "make or break" moment.
"I know I can make plays," Burns said. "That’s why they brought me here, to make plays. I’ve just got to make them routine, like what I know I’m capable of doing."
Burns’ struggles raise questions about the delicate nature of a cornerback in today’s yards-centric NFL and the Steelers’ late-first-round draft plight.
In the 2016 draft, the Steelers were high on corner William Jackson, whom the Bengals took with the 24th pick. Burns was available at No. 25, and the Steelers loved his competitiveness. He will accept any challenge and isn’t afraid to play physical.
For the past two camps, Burns has spent significant time guarding Brown and seemed to relish those chances. So did Brown, who said aloud during a 2017 practice that he needed Burns to return from minor injury after Brown torched Ross Cockrell on a deep ball.
Coaches and players all agree Burns had a solid camp entering this season. But Burns was involved in several defensive breakdowns in a Week 2 loss to Kansas City, and with the defense having given up 1,682 total yards and 12 passing touchdowns -- both franchise worsts through four weeks -- Burns’ play has come into focus.
Receivers have 11 catches for 185 yards and three touchdowns on 18 targets against Burns, according to PlayerProfiler.com data. Pro Football Focus ranks Burns the No. 58 corner in the NFL, rating him slightly above average.
Asked recently if he’s feeling pressure, frustration and determination, Burns said, "Some of all of that."
Burns believes the problem is clear-cut: He’s sometimes letting bad plays get to him.
Defensive coordinator Keith Butler is urging Burns to keep his confidence up.
"As a corner in the National Football League, any time you get beat deep, you have to have a short memory," Butler said. "I think he’s learning that. As a young corner, you have to put that behind you and go onto the next play. Artie’s a good player, he knows he’s a good player. He’s just got to keep confidence in terms of what he’s trying to do and who he’s trying to cover."
When that confidence wavers, Burns tends to revert to old coverage techniques that "cause him to be hesitant," Butler said. Absorbing the detailed scouting report on opposing receivers each week will help Burns work through that, Butler added.
Burns has figured out that if he doesn’t bring high energy each day, coaches take notice. After three interceptions as a rookie, Burns has one pick in the 20 games since.
"It’s a challenge that’s winnable," he said of that process. "Just have to stay focused in every snap."
Teammates care more about lifting Burns up than evaluating his numbers.
"I know everyone’s pretty down on Artie, but we’re not," slot corner Mike Hilton said. "We’re confident he can do it. We know he’s capable. He’s a guy who’s been here three years now. He knows the system, he plays well. We don’t think it’s any pressure. We expect him to go out and be himself. We trust him."
Burns is heeding the advice of LeBron James, whom Burns heard say recently that other teams are great and will make plays, but you can win by minimizing those plays and making your own.
Or something like that. He doesn’t remember the exact words, but he gleaned the message he needed.
"It’s life, you feel me," Burns said of his struggles. "You go through stuff all the time. It determines who you are as a person. I’ve been doubted my whole life."
Asked what kind of corner he can be coming out of this, Burns said, "I can be whatever I want to be."
"Great," he replied.