The Pittsburgh Steelers trade for Minkah Fitzpatrick late on Monday night is a sign of new days in Pittsburgh.
A team that once was cautious and worried about the future had now, in a six-month span, traded up into the top ten of the NFL Draft for Devin Bush and traded a future first-round pick for a starting defensive back.
These are not the Steelers of old.
Many are going to question the decision and the timing, but there is no doubting the talent of Fitzpatrick.
The Dolphins gave him most of his rookie salary up-front with a signing bonus. This will put Fitzpatrick on the books for $6 million over the next three seasons. That is much cheaper than any first-round pick, and draft picks are much cheaper than veterans. It is not often an impact player with three years of cheap cost becomes available.
Furthermore, the Steelers have a poor track record of drafting in the defensive backfield, and Fitzpatrick is an established NFL player who put in a strong rookie season. There are no sure things like him in the draft.
Even better, his skillset fits with most of the questions surrounding the Steelers defense.
The biggest issue for Pittsburgh this year has been the same issue for a while now. They have communication breakdowns. Ryan Shazier helped in this area in a huge way, and without him, the Steelers have yet to find an answer. When the Steelers drafted Terrell Edmunds, they mentioned his communication ability is his biggest asset.
“We got a sharp, young, versatile guy who’s a very good communicator that plays physically” Tomlin noted of Edmunds after the draft.
On top of that, Bush was drafted with the intentions that he would take over the Shazier role as a play-caller. The ripple effect of Bush calling plays would be critical. With Bush in the middle and Edmunds on the back-end, the team anticipated communication issues to end.
It is early for Bush, but he has not stepped into the play-calling role yet. Week 1, T.J. Watt called the plays. The Patriots scored both times Watt was off the field. On Sunday, Vince Williams called plays and left the game in the first quarter with an injury. This left Mark Barron taking the role for the first time in defense he is just learning as well.
Fitzpatrick got on the field as a freshman at Alabama. That says something. He called plays as a “star” linebacker in the Alabama defense, which many note is as complex, if not more than NFL defenses. Not only did Fitzpatrick excel in this role, he left campus with a nickname of “Saban’s son” as head coach Nick Saban raved about his attention to detail.
Bush, Fitzpatrick and Watt should set a culture of young, high-upside athletic talents who take pride in their work ethic, detail, and understanding. Fitzpatrick could step in and help with play calls, or at least in the relay of identifying plays before the snap in the back end. The fact that he picked things up quickly at Alabama makes one think he could come in quick on the fly.
In two weeks, the Steelers have allowed 10 passes of 20 yards or more. That is tied with Miami and Baltimore for the third-worst rate, trailing only Oakland and Miami. It does not help when Tom Brady and Russell Wilson are on the other side. However, the big plays have to stop. The defense played relatively well on Sunday, recording four sacks and creating two turnovers. The big plays killed them.
An injury to Sean Davis has not helped. It left the team starting Kam Kelly, a former cornerback in the AAF, at free safety against Brady in Week 1. Brady picked his spots and showed why Kelly has a long way to go. On Sunday, Davis came back but looked frustrated as he consistently saw passes completed in front, or next to him. He had a few strong hits, but could not break up any passes and left the game with another injury, this time to his shoulder.
Shuffling the last line of defense in the first two weeks is never going to go well, especially against experienced quarterbacks.
When healthy, Davis won’t get completely benched, as Fitzpatrick is versatile. However, his role will be reduced. Free safety is the most likely spot for Fitzpatrick to fit in on a down-per-down basis. With added communication at all levels, the splash plays should be reduced.
DEFEND THE SLOT
An injury to Davis and the growth remaining for Bush are understandable. However, the Steelers inability to defend the middle of the field has to be their most frustrating downfall to date. This goes back years from Julian Edelman and all of his big games to Keenan Allen last season. The Steelers were once a team that dominated the middle of the field with physicality. With new rule changes, the middle of the field is much more wide open, and the team has been slow to adopt. Is it surprising that Saban had Fitzpatrick in roles at Alabama that would become valuable in the future of the NFL?
It was not a surprise that the Patriots, a team that has mastered opening up the middle of the field, had their way with Pittsburgh. However, the most damning situation was as the Patriots went with an empty set, and the Steelers could not react. In the play below you can see that Rex Burkhead and James Devlin are lined up out wide with Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon in the slot. The Steelers kept their cornerbacks on the outside on the backs and saw their inside linebackers matched up with two talented wide receivers. These are schematic breakdowns that show the team is still not adjusting quickly enough.
This is a tough decision because with a full back and running back, you want your linebackers in the game. However, the Steelers are not versatile enough to match up to teams in the box in these scenarios. Last season Fitzpatrick played 379 snaps in the slot, 281 on the outside, 166 at free safety, and 90 in the box. He is a strong run defender but can match up with anyone, anywhere.
If the Patriots motion a player into the slot, Fitzpatrick is there. if they force Fitzpatrick in the box to defend the run, he is there. If he has to chase tight ends, running backs and wide receivers out wide, it is not an issue.
In crunch time of Week 2, the Seahawks completed a 28-yard bomb to D.K. Metcalf to give them a two-score lead. Metcalf, who lined up outside throughout the game moved into the slot for the defining play. The Seahawks had been waiting for this one and knew they would get Metcalf away from Steven Nelson, who had an excellent day against the rookie.
The Seahawks got the matchup they wanted and the veteran quarterback knew the moment they lined up. Terrell Edmunds was lined up in man against Metcalf, which is a mismatch every time. Now, the Steelers can use Edmunds to bracket, but man up Fitzpatrick on Metcalf in the slot. Last season Fitzpatrick allowed a 53.4 passer rating in the slot, which led all cornerbacks.
You can see the versatility to defend the middle of the field and limit splash plays from Fitzpatrick with an interception of Tom Brady below.
The Steelers have rotated Hilton to safety in the preseason to prepare this. When the Steelers see bigger slot players, Fitzpatrick can take him with Hilton over the top. Against smaller slot players, Hilton can resume his role with Fitzpatrick over the top. That will keep Edmunds away from wide receivers.
The Steelers also can show more dime looks. Davis, Edmunds, and Fitzpatrick can play in the box next to Barron or Bush while keeping Hilton on the field as well. That could result in fewer snaps for Vince Williams as well, as he was third in the rotation against New England and left Week 2 with an injury.
The Steelers needed defensive back help. They needed to keep the ship floating for Ben Roethlisberger to return and to get a fair assessment of Mason Rudolph. The team was not going to be able to draft a play caller, who plays multiple positions and defends the areas of the field the Steelers have struggled in the most. When you add in his age, control and contract the deal makes sense, even at the heavy price of a first round pick.