PITTSBURGH — The butterfly effect of seemingly small things played out over the course of an NFL season can sometimes be dramatic.
In the Pittsburgh Steelers’ third preseason game against the Detroit Lions this August, Steelers inside linebacker Robert Spillane missed a tackle after Lions backup running back Justin Jackson got the ball in the flat.
Jackson was able to get a full head of steam going before another Steelers defender even got close to him. When Steelers safety Damontae Kazee got there, he dove low to try to trip up Jackson along the sideline. Jackson jumped to try to hurdle him. Kazee got more than enough of Jackson to keep the attempted hurdle from being a success, but he paid a steep price to do so. The impact with Jackson’s leg fractured Kazee’s left forearm and dislocated his wrist.
The first half of his 2022 season was over before it started.
The Steelers weren’t an obvious fit when Kazee was looking for a new home as a free agent in the 2022 offseason. The Steelers had just already signed starting free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick to a loaded contract and brought back strong safety Terrell Edmunds on a team-friendly one-year deal.
Seventh-round 2021 draft pick Tre Norwood showed promise as a rookie thrust into a role last season and trusted special teamer Miles Killebrew was back in the fold, as well. There wasn’t an obvious place for Kazee in the Steelers defense.
That doesn’t mean that Kazee isn’t good. He once had seven interceptions in a season with the Atlanta Falcons. Last season with the Dallas Cowboys, his receivers caught just 46.7% of the targeted balls thrown his way. His passer rating against was just 63.5.
If not for an expected three-game suspension for DWI — that ended up getting served while Kazee was injured with the Steelers — he probably would have been someone’s starting safety.
Instead, the plan was for the Steelers to be able to do something different with their lineup. Kazee has the versatility to play either safety position, as well as slot corner. New defensive coordinator Teryl Austin installed a three-safety Nickel package this summer with Edmunds, Fitzpatrick and Kazee all on the field together.
Not only does a three-safety Nickel put a more-sure tackler and better run defender on the field than using a traditional slot cornerback, by using Kazee in that role, it would prevent opposing teams from knowing what Fitzpatrick’s role is just by looking at the personnel.
In Fitzpatrick’s first season in Pittsburgh in 2019, he had five interceptions in 14 games. He had six in the following two seasons combined. Teams had learned not to throw the ball in No. 39’s direction. By adding Kazee, the Steelers got another ballhawk, and the ability to disguise where Fitzpatrick would be on any given play.
“With me and TE out there, I feel like offenses get a bead on where we are, how we’re lined up, what we’re doing, stuff like that,” Fitzpatrick said. “When Kazee is out there, it adds a third guy who can also move around and be anything in the secondary. It does give them a more difficult read.”
That was the plan, anyway. But all of that went out the window when Jackson’s leg shattered Kazee’s arm.
Then, more injury negativity impacted the Steelers. With Kazee on the shelf for at least the first eight weeks of the season with his injury, the Pittsburgh secondary went on a nearly unprecedented injury run.
Fitzpatrick suffered a concussion and outside cornerback Ahekllo Witherspoon injured his hamstring in Week 3 against the Cleveland Browns. Fitzpatrick returned the following week, only to injure his knee. Terrell Edmunds suffered a concussion. Cornerbacks Cam Sutton (groin, hamstring) and Levi Wallace (foot, concussion, shoulder) suffered a variety of ailments. Backups James Pierre (hip) and Josh Jackson (groin) missed time, too.
Of all of the times to not have Kazee available, that was the worst. Norwood was forced to play strong safety while Fitzpatrick attempted to play through his knee injury against the Buffalo Bills in Week 4. The Steelers gave up 424 yards and four touchdowns to Josh Allen.
In Week 7 against the Miami Dolphins, the Steelers lost on a game-sealing interception thrown by rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett. The Steelers defensive backs had five balls hit their hands in the game. No one made a catch.
Against the Eagles in Week 8, with Wallace out, Witherspoon attempted to return from his hamstring injury. He was torched by A.J. Brown for two touchdowns before being replaced by Pierre. Edmunds was lined up on slot receivers for most of the day and was beaten over the top once and fooled for a missed assignment once.
The Steelers never got to run the three-safety Nickel they spent all that time on in the preseason, instead fired out formations from the hip as they attempted to deal with the players they had available. Spillane took the role of the slot defender for some plays in a pure 4-3 front the Steelers have basically never shown.
Spillane, whose innocent missed tackle in the second half of a meaningless preseason game started all of this.
It’s been a long first half of the 2022 season for the Steelers, and especially for a defense that was expected to be among the best in the league. The absence of outside linebacker T.J. Watt has been largely attributed to that downfall, but the lack of depth in the secondary created by Kazee’s absence and the subsequent rash of injuries can’t be ignored, either.
“I can’t wait until Kazee gets back,” said slot corner Art Maulet, the only regular member of the secondary to not miss time with injury this season. “High energy, that guy knows what he’s doing. Obviously, he can make plays on the ball. He has what, 12 interceptions in his career, something like that? He’s a big ball-search guy, a splash-play guy. He has confidence and brings a lot of energy and makes you have fun with the game.”
Kazee was thinking right along Maulet’s lines when asked about how he thinks he can make an impact.
“We gotta get that ball,” Kazee said. “If it hits our hands, we’ve got to make plays. That’s what they pay us to do. … Get turnovers, give the offense another opportunity to make some points.”
The butterfly effect leading to and stemming from Kazee’s absence has wound its way through the entire first half of the Steelers’ season. Perhaps his return can do so in a positive way for the second half.
Kazee is only under contract for the rest of 2022, but so is Edmunds. The Steelers have already shown a willingness to shake things up with the mid-season trade of Chase Claypool. No one is guaranteed a spot here in the future, but having more players that you want than you can keep is a lot better problem to have than the opposite. If Kazee’s return and the addition of Jackson can stabilize the secondary, the Steelers can work the contracts out later.