PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers are getting back to something approaching full strength at safety, but the return of several players also creates a logjam that will need to be sorted out by head coach Mike Tomlin, defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and the rest of the staff.
Since losing Damontae Kazee to suspension and Minkah Fitzpatrick to injury in the second quarter of the Steelers’ 30-13 loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Dec. 16, the Steelers have been starting practice squad veteran Eric Rowe and cornerback Patrick Peterson at safety.
At quarterback in a similar situation, Tomlin said that he’s rolling with the “hot hand” and sticking with 3-0 Mason Rudolph, even though Kenny Pickett is finally back to something approaching full health.
But at safety, it’s a little bit different. Minkah Fitzpatrick is an All-Pro and he’ll get back into the lineup — if he’s healthy. Peterson could return to his natural position. Will Rowe find a permanent role? What about Trenton Thompson and Keanu Neal? Could they return from injury this week?
“If it creates a long logjam in terms of talent, or people available to us then that is a good problem to have,” head coach Mike Tomlin said on Tuesday. ‘It’s a better problem to have than some of the issues that we’ve had in terms of trying to figure out who and how to play. And so, we’ll sort through some of those things man as we’re game planning.”
So what is Tomlin planning? Let’s break down the options.
Why he could play: A three-time All-Pro and a 2023 Pro Bowler, Fitzpatrick is the best player the Steelers have at safety and one of the two best players on the team. There’s almost no consideration to the idea that he wouldn’t play in a playoff game if he’s able to.
Why he might not play: Fitzpatrick has yet to return to action from a left knee injury and did not dress against the Baltimore Ravens last week despite being listed as questionable. So Fitzpatrick will need to return to full health to be able to go. He also could play at less than 100%, needing someone else to
Why he could play: Kazee began the season as the team’s starting strong safety, and then moved to free safety when Fitzpatrick was injured. He’s versatile enough to play both at a high level and the team’s three-safety sub packages were basically built for someone with his skillset.
Why he might not play: Kazee is returning from a three-week suspension that not only didn’t let him play in any games, but he couldn’t even be around the team or in the facility. He spent the last three weeks at home in California with his family. Tomlin said that his conditioning will be “evaluated” in practice this week. It seems likely that Kazee will play, but it’s not clear if he’ll be able to play a full workload, and two starting safeties in that condition could be problematic.
Why he could play: Rowe started each of the team’s essentially must-win games the last three weeks and has gotten praise for his strong play. He has an interception and a forced fumble and generally has not at all looked out of place. It seems likely that Rowe has at least earned some type of role for the playoffs.
Why he might not play: If Fitzpatrick and Kazee are close to 100%, there might not be a large role for Rowe, and he’s played only a handful of special teams snaps this season. So it could be a case of him either being counted on for a big role, or not dressing at all in place of a core teams guy.
Why he could play: Peterson has talked about making his move from cornerback to safety, which was done out of desperation after Kazee and Fitzpatrick were injured, more permanent going forward. He seems to like it there, and certainly could round out a rotation with Fitzpatrick and Kazee as the third safety, a situation that would insulate him against a more run-defense heavy role.
Why he might not play: With Peterson at safety, Levi Wallace has stepped back into the starting role at outside cornerback opposite Joey Porter Jr. the last few weeks. The Buffalo Bills present a significant two-headed challenge in Stefon Diggs and Gave Davis at wide receiver.
When the Steelers faced a similar situation two weeks ago, Porter followed DK Metcalf around basically 1 on 1 in Seattle, and gave up a bunch of yards, but the extra help to the other side of the field provided Wallace and company the ammunition to mostly shut down Tyler Lockett and Jaxon Smith-Njigba.
This week, that plan would involve a much tougher assignment for Porter in Diggs, and also would leave Wallace on Davis, who went off for 171 yards and two touchdowns in that matchup last season.
Peterson moving back to corner would provide the Steelers another weapon there to help deal with Davis let the safeties more evenly split their help and take some of the pressure off Porter.
“That’s an option,” Tomlin said. “It hadn’t been an option in recent weeks, but it is an option this week.”
Peterson is playing. It’s just a question of where.
Why he could play: Thompson is the first guy on this list that actually profiles as a traditional strong safety, and the Bills’ offensive personnel is begging for someone like that to help combat the twin tight end towers of Dawson Knox and Dalton Kincaid.
Why he might not play:Thompson has been out the last three weeks with a neck injury, and has returned to practice, but was questionable and did not play against the Ravens. He said before the game that he was targeting the first week of the playoffs for a potential return, but Thompson said this week that he is unlikely to be able to play against the Bills.
Why he could play: Neal has been eligible to return from the injured reserve list since Week 15
Why he might not play: While Mike Tomlin has refused to rule Neal out for the season, he’s stopped giving injury updates on him altogether and Neal hasn’t even been around the team all that much, let alone looking ready to return to practice. This seems like a long shot.
Why he could play: Riley has been a key special teamer the last few weeks, since he returned from a high ankle sprain, and has also filled in as a Dime defender, a role he’s more than capable of carrying out against a team that loves to play multiple tight ends and running backs.
Why he might not play: If the starters are less than 100%, the Steelers might not feel they’re able to dress a player to almost exclusively be a special teamer, and someone like Rowe might be more likely to take that spot.