I couldn't even finish framing my question before Justin Layne expressed his disappointment. Because he almost had it. For a minute, he did have it. Then it was taken away.
Here's the full sequence during the Steelers' 24-17 win over the Chargers in Carson, Calif.:
Yeah, you can't do that, unfortunately, Mr. Layne. While Layne and the special teams unit celebrated what they thought was a fumble recovery off a muffed punt, it was instantly clear to anyone watching that Desmond King called for a fair catch, then had that process obstructed by Layne. The play was reversed after a brief discussion and the Chargers took over on offense,
But don't kill Layne's vibe, man.
"It feels good just knowing big plays like that are possible," Layne was telling me beside his locker at the Rooney Complex. "All splash plays are important. It was just a big momentum thing."
Yeah, but then they reversed it, so ...
"I was kinda mad, but it's all good," Layne said with a laugh.
It's easy to chuckle after a win, and Layne's spirits were certainly high Wednesday as he strapped on his backpack and made for the door to enjoy his first bye week as an official, no-joke NFL player. Maybe it was that — the time off, the rest and the recovery ahead — that had Layne feeling so chipper.
Or maybe it was this:
That's a routine tackle, sure, but for Layne — for any rookie battling to make a name in the NFL — nothing is "routine," exactly. Every rep counts. Any missed opportunity gets highlighted and scrutinized. So breaking down and making a form tackle on special teams matters.
While Layne was a standout, second-team All-Big-10 corner last year with Michigan State, he's now behind Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, Artie Burns and Cam Sutton on the Steelers' depth chart at outside cornerback. So he's gotta do stuff like those two plays above, stuff he's not necessarily used to, in order to carve out a spot.
And he's embracing that role.
"I gotta do it. It's my job," Layne said. "I just try to keep the same mindset I have at corner. Just try to make plays and make the most of my opportunities."
As they come and as Layne snags them, it all builds up to something more: The opportunity to crack the lineup and register snaps on defense. Thus far in his professional career, Layne's played 19 snaps — all on special teams, with 14 of those coming against the Chargers. But his focus is clear. He wasn't drafted to play special teams. He was drafted to lock down the game's best receivers on a weekly basis, and Layne sees that light at the end of the tunnel brighter now than ever.
"I feel pretty good about [my development]," Layne told me. "I feel like I'm getting better every day. I feel like I'm learning. And that's the most important thing, just knowing I'm doing the best I can every day. I can't be mad at that."
Can't be mad when you're watching a defense go to work, either. The Steelers have registered 15 takeaways — eight interceptions and seven fumble recoveries — through six games, good for a plus-seven turnover differential on the year. They've also rung up 20 sacks, third in the NFL, while tying for sixth with 32 passes defended.
For Layne, it's all flat-out fun to watch.
"Oh yeah, yeah," Layne fired back when I asked him if he's enjoying his time learning behind the veterans on this roster. "The guys we got on this team? Man, it's just great to learn from those guys. The starters, Joe Haden, everybody. It's great."
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