Rookies making an impact

Steelers' nose tackle Javon Hargrave (79) falls on a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown against the Browns on Nov. 20. (AP)

PITTSBURGH (AP) – The learning curve is starting to level off for Javon Hargrave, Artie Burns and Sean Davis. That hardly means it’s flat. Not by a long shot. Still, the game is beginning to slow down for the three Pittsburgh Steeler rookies, all of whom have made significant plays on a defense that’s picked it up during the team’s modest turnaround.

“I get so excited when we in the huddle,” said Davis, a safety. “I see us and there’s not a drop off.”

Exactly what the Steelers (6-5) had in mind when they used each of their first three picks in the 2016 draft to give an underperforming unit a needed jolt of youth and talent, even if they didn’t anticipate relying on them to become regulars quite so soon. Yet there was Burns, the 25th overall pick last spring, picking up his second career interception against the Browns on Nov. 20. There was Hargrave, a third-rounder from South Carolina State, falling on a fumble in the end zone for a score in the same game. There was Davis, a second-round safety, making a touchdown-saving tackle against Indianapolis that set up one of Pittsburgh’s two goal line stands in a 28-7 victory on Thanksgiving.

“You’ve got to go with what you got,” defensive coordinator Keith Butler said last week. “It’s not like you’ve got a lot of choices.”

Maybe, but all three have found their legs following a shaky start, particularly Davis, who was forced to split time at safety and nickelback early in the season. By Davis’ own admission, it was a bit much a bit too soon.

“You have to study watching the same film but it’s two different aspects,” Davis said. “I’m not running away from it, but it’s hard. I’m trying to learn everything, trying to learn two different positions. It got a little tough so they backed up. I’m handling my job well. Maybe they’ll be giving me a little bit more moving forward.”

It seems Davis is already there. He was the only Steeler to be on the field for every defensive snap against the Colts, a very tangible vote of confidence from Butler and head coach Mike Tomlin.

“They rewarded me and put me out there,” Davis said. “I’m just going to continue to do what I’m doing, keep my head down, stay humble and continue to work.”

Not that he has much choice in the matter, particularly for a club still trying to escape the rubble of a nightmarish four-game losing streak that threatened to derail a once promising season. Solid if hardly spectacular victories over the winless Browns and Andrew Luck-less Indianapolis stopped the slide. The Steelers weren’t exactly dominant but maybe that’s a good thing. After spending most of the first five weeks winning with style, Pittsburgh opted for a more substantive approach in games they absolutely had to have.

The defense picked up 11 sacks over the two games – nearly doubling the Steelers’ season total – and forced a pair of fourth quarter interceptions against the Colts, the kind of “splash” plays Tomlin so dearly covets. A far more difficult task awaits on Sunday when Eli Manning, Odell Beckham Jr. and the streaking New York Giants (8-3) visit Heinz Field. It’s a measuring stick of sorts to see just how far the kids have come and if Pittsburgh’s recent return to normalcy is for real.

Burns is trying to downplay the prospect of facing the explosive – and occasionally overly emotive – Beckham.

“I don’t want to use it as a measurement because everybody’s going to make plays here and there,” Burns said. “I’m just going out there and competing and (if) you come out with a ‘W,’ that’s what matters.”

Still, there’s little doubt getting a shot at slowing down the New York star is one of the reasons the Steelers made Burns the first cornerback they’ve taken in the opening round of the draft in nearly 20 years. Tomlin describes Burns as “combative,” particularly at the line of scrimmage where most plays are won and lost, though Burns has exceptional recovery speed and long arms to make up for the occasional mistake. He’s made believers out of his teammates, including wide receiver Antonio Brown, who spent a portion of the spring and summer providing Burns with some pretty good on-the-job training.

Hargrave’s progress has been more subtle, though he’s clearly taken a step forward with defensive end Cam Heyward now out for the season. The player teammates call “J Wobble” appears decidedly sturdy, picking up the first two sacks of his career over the last two weeks and making a season-high four tackles against the Colts.

“It’s really making me want more,” Hargrave said. “I’m even hungry for more.”