Trio of Steelers rookie starters bucking 45-year trend

Artie Burns has developed quicker than the Steelers could have expected. AP Photo/David Richard

PITTSBURGH -- That early 1970s Steelers defensive lineup was harder to crack, but what corner Artie Burns, safety Sean Davis and defensive tackle Javon Hargrave are doing is still quite impressive.

The Steelers are starting three rookies on defense for the first time since 1971 with Jack Ham, Mike Wagner and Dwight White, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

All three were thrust into action early, and they are sidestepping the rookie wall on the way to playmaker hill.

This is an imperfect group but one that signifies hope for present and future defenses. And it might have a sneaky-good future linebacker in seventh-round pick Tyler Matakevich.

Grade: B+

Best rookie: Hargrave. Tough call between Hargrave and Burns, who has nine pass deflections and two interceptions, but from the coaches' standpoint, Hargrave has been the steadiest rookie. He doesn't make mistakes often. And he produced sacks in back-to-back games before leaving Week 13 with a concussion.

Most improved rookies: Burns and Davis have become factors quicker than expected. Burns was considered by some in the draft process as raw. But he hasn't backed down from any challenge, including some press-man coverage on the outside. He has coupled a few bad moments (getting beat by Dez Bryant and Mike Wallace on long touchdowns) with rangy disruption in passing lanes. The Steelers had to sit Davis for a couple of weeks after overloading him with slot corner and safety duties, but he has taken ownership of the starting safety spot alongside Mike Mitchell, and the two work well together. Davis has proved to be physical against the run.

Most disappointing rookie: Fourth-round offensive tackle Jerald Hawkins, only because he can't play. Hawkins underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum that might have been lingering from his tenure at LSU. But Hawkins impressed in training camp and was poised to become a valuable swing tackle. Hawkins could be a nice down-the-road option for a deep Steelers line.

The jury is still out on... Travis Feeney: An NFL-ready rookie pass-rusher could have carved out a role on a Steelers defense without a clear-cut star off the edge. But Feeney, despite obvious athleticism, needed to add size to his 230-pound frame and battled shoulder problems out of college. The Steelers have stashed him and receiver Demarcus Ayers on the practice squad. Both have a chance to be factors in the future.

Undrafted rookie check-in: It's draft-pick-or-bust for Steelers rookies making an impact. The Steelers' roster features several undrafted players with one year of experience, including safety Jordan Dangerfield, guard B.J. Finney and receiver Cobi Hamilton. But the four rookies on the active roster all were draft picks.