The Pittsburgh Steelers trading a first-round pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick was out of character. However, the situation of a tanking team trading a second-year star on a cheap contract that just so happened to fill one of the Steelers’ biggest weaknesses only comes around so often as well. When factoring in the context of the situation, it was a decision they had to make, even sitting at 0-2, and risking that the pick may be a very high one.
While the Steelers have only slightly improved to 1-3 in their two games since then, the defense has taken a dramatic shift to being a better unit. Since the team has played about the same number of snaps with Fitzpatrick as without you can see the stark splits in how this trade has impacted the team.
Despite struggles against San Fransisco, the team shut down the run against Cincinnati and saw slight improvements in that area overall. Explosive plays are down a tick as well. However, the huge contrast comes in passing success. The second Fitzpatrick was inserted into the lineup sacks and turnovers went up, and quarterbacks had much less success passing the football.
This is a very small sample size, and a skewed one considering the defense moved from Tom Brady and Russ Wilson to Jimmy Garoppolo and Andy Dalton. However, there is noticeable differences in the back end that show signs of life that we could be seeing the start of a strong defense coming together.
Three of the biggest reasons the Fitzpatrick trade was a necessity was because they were giving up explosive plays at an alarming rate, they could not contain the slot, and they had breakdowns in communication. Fitzpatrick was a deep field safety, an alpha communicator, and a player whose versatility can allow the team to be flexible in the slot.
Early in the game, you can see the Steelers may have changed their philosophy in the slot. Joe Haden will almost always line up on the outside. However, the Bengals best wide receiver Tyler Boyd lives in the slot. This was typically an issue for the Steelers as they had to decide to play Haden out of position, where he does not have sideline help he is used to, or they wind up with someone unfit to play Boyd in coverage such as a linebacker.
In this red zone scenario, you can see Haden follows Boyd in the slot. Without being familiar in the area, he opens his hips to take away any out routes. This forces Boyd into the middle of the field where Terrell Edmunds is bracketing him. This is a combination of scheme and talent shutting down a top threat of an offense.
Boyd was held to three catches for 33 yards. The week before, George Kittle caught six passes for 57 yards. These two would typically have been thorns in the Steelers side but both were held in check.
In the play below you can see a combination of communication help take away a potential splash play. Before the snap, you can see Devin Bush, Mike Hilton, and Minkah Fitzpatrick communicating and responding to what they see. Bush is lined up inside and Hilton outside of Bush with Fitzpatrick deep behind both.
However, the man Bush is guarding breaks out for a deep pass, while the receiver over Hilton breaks in. The Steelers would typically have a hard time passing off the deep receiver, and it would leave one of the two receivers sitting over the short middle to be open. However, Bush and Hilton identified the play and passed off their men seamlessly. Fitzpatrick was in perfect position over the top to force the route to the sideline. The result is Andy Dalton holding onto the ball for long and getting sack.
The Bengals talent level is not great, but they threw some looks at the Steelers where they thought they would get the same old Steelers defense lost and confused. However, this defense communicated and attacked as they were prepared for every situation thrown at them.
Expect teams to continue to attack the back end. However, with the addition of Fitzpatrick, look for the Steelers to continue to get creative, as they get more comfortable shutting down more skilled offensive attacks.