PITTSBURGH -- In his return from a three-week injury absence last week, Artie Burns intercepted at least three passes in practices and his standard remark was "I don't get paid to intercept passes in practice."
He intercepted another pass yesterday, on a haphazard throwback over the middle by the pressured look-team quarterback, but nobody was even asking Burns, or his defensive coach, about that. They were asking about the noticeable uptick in Burns' intensity, and, therefore, his performance.
"This week Artie's been working hard," said coordinator Keith Butler. "I think he's covering 84 (Antonio Brown) a little bit better, and that's how I judge it. He's staying a little bit closer to him."
"I don't know, but I'll take it," Butler said. "I don't care what the reasons are. I just like how he's working."
Brown, or ABI, agreed with Butler's assessment of Burns, or ABII.
"Yeah, he's definitely getting better," said Brown. "That's what we're going to need from him. We're going to need him to step up. He's definitely been taking extra reps, looking like he's back to health and he's doing a great job."
Has it been the acquisition of Gilbert?
"Nah, just getting my reps," said Burns. "I've been practicing for a week and a half and I'm getting more comfortable, feeling good with my technique. I just keep on improving every day."
With Gilbert still learning the playbook, Burns would likely be the second rookie off the bench behind nickel back Sean Davis, this year's second-round pick. All three of the newcomers -- Gilbert, Burns and Davis -- are in the 6-0/6-1, 200-pound range size-wise and ran between 4.37 and 4.46 at their respective NFL Combines.
Neither of the three long, fast, young defensive backs are among the Steelers' first four, but the group is giving Butler a sense of excitement about the future of the secondary.
"We've got a lot of talent there," Butler said. "It's a matter of getting playing time. If they stay healthy and get their work, I think we'll be pretty good down the stretch."
SPEAKING OF TALENTED DBs ...
The Steelers' opening opponent, the Washington Redskins, have a history under owner Daniel Snyder of throwing money at problem areas. This offseason they made former Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman the highest-paid player ever at his position with a five-year, $75 million contract.
The fifth-year player is coming off a first-team All-Pro season and his matchup against Brown on Monday night will no doubt be a highlight.
"Traditionally, he’s been a one-spot kind of guy," said Ben Roethlisberger. "But, he has followed people around, so we’ll be ready for anything. He’s one of the best, if not the best in the business, so it’s a heck of a challenge for myself and the rest of the guys."
Brown, though, said he doesn't know if Norman will tail him throughout the game, nor does Brown seem to care.
"I'm excited to see whoever's out there," Brown said. "Whoever lines up, I'm ready to see him."
Brown was asked if Denver's Chris Harris was the last cornerback to follow him.
"I think a lot of people follow me on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat," Brown deadpanned.
What about on the field?
"I don't know," Brown said. "I don't line up looking who a guy is. I line up reading the schemes and try to execute the plays the coach puts in to the best of my ability."
With the return to the field of rookie nose tackle Javon Hargrave, the only starters missing from Thursday's practice were wide receiver Markus Wheaton (shoulder) and fullback Rosie Nix (back). Also out were center Cody Wallace (knee) and of course cornerback Senquez Golson (foot).
Right tackle Marcus Gilbert (hyperestended elbow) and defensive end Cam Heyward (high ankle sprain) worked full-time, again, in spite of injuries that perhaps could get better with another day or two of rest. Both were asked why they've chosen to work instead.
"It's the first game," said Gilbert. "I need to go out there and get the feel for it. I wanted to see where I was. Right now I feel really good."
"I don't want to get out there and just go one play," said Heyward. "I need this because I had a little bit of time off and it wasn't like I could really condition like I wanted to. And I need those reps. I'm still one of those guys who really takes practice seriously because I've got to see what type of blocks I'm going to get during a game."