PITTSBURGH — The Steelers get Minkah Fitzpatrick back for the first time in over a month from a hamstring injury. Unsurprisingly, the team is excited to get the band back together. And that is literally. Pittsburgh has been getting it done with the NFL’s best turnover margin and key plays on both sides of the ball in the fourth quarter. That bend-but-don’t-break mentality has served the team well, and they don’t care if it means their wins lack style points.
But this is the first time since Week 1 that Fitzpatrick, Cam Heyward, Alex Highsmith, and T.J. Watt will be on the same field together. With injuries amounting over the season, those difference makers have often found themselves hurt and unable to play, even when one got healthy. Heyward and Fitzpatrick have both missed significant time. In the meantime, guys like Trenton Thompson have stepped up with injuries mounting.
Even with all the injuries and fluctuations, the Steelers never simplified the defense. They put Thompson all over the formation, and the same goes for guys like Elandon Roberts and Mykal Walker. However, one thing the team did not get to do well over the last few weeks was mesh their disguises together. To make sure communication was sound, they over-communicated in every way. With so much personnel movement, it makes sense, but comes at a cost.
Quarterbacks can read out disguises and pick out how rotations will occur from pre- and post-snap. It haunted the Steelers a few times against the Packers. But that could change with the central communication hub back at safety this week. Fitzpatrick will allow subtlety to sweep into those disguises.
That’s something Roberts brought up as the hidden benefit of Fitzpatrick’s return. They will still communicate but can disguise themselves into different formations more subtly. I know how much the Steelers love to do that, and that could lead to some turnovers.
“One thing I will say is that we can disguise a little better,” Roberts said of Fitzpatrick’s return. “Think of it without him. We’re overcommunicating and even though we do disguise, it’s not hidden that well. We’ll still communicate with Minkah back in there, but we can be sneaky about it, dress up even more looks. That’s something hidden there.”
With Fitzpatrick out, the Steelers moved Damontae Kazee from strong safety to free safety, and the veteran drew praise for his communication and leadership skills. At strong safety, Keanu Neal first stepped up from a part-time role to a full-time spot to fill in for Kazee. But then he was injured late in the Steelers’ Week 10 win over the Green Bay Packers and placed on the injured reserve list.
That turned the starting job over to former practice squad player Thompson, and Thompson stepped upon big time, helping lock down big, athletic Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku in Week 11 and intercepting Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Jake Browning in Week 12, creating a game-changing momentum swing. With Fitzpatrick back now and the personnel swarming up, it is hard not to think the Steelers will continue to improve, especially with some of the hidden value.