CINCINNATI — It’s a pretty rare day for a defensive back to have a pick six and it not be the most impactful play that he made, but that’s exactly what happened in Sunday’s season-opening win for Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick did intercept Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and return it for a touchdown on the first drive of the game.
But it was the play he made with two seconds left that saved the game.
After Burrow found JaMarr Chase in the front right corner of the end zone to tie the game at 20-20 with two seconds left on the clock, the Steelers needed a miracle to remain alive in the game.
The Steelers ran an overload rush to the left side of the Cincinnati formation, with six players crashing into four Cincinnati blockers on the left side of the long snapper. Tight end Drew Sample kicked out to take the widest rusher, cornerback Cam Sutton. Alex Highsmith and Myles Jack both crashed into the left tackle, backup lineman Hakeem Adeniji. That left a tiny crack for Fitzpatrick to charge through.
He did, leaping through the gap and getting “a half a finger” on to the kick of Cincinnati placekicker Evan McPherson. The partially blocked kick landed two yards into the end zone and the Steelers got a stay of execution.
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“Go to the ball,” Fitzpatrick said about his mindset on the play. “Not too many people got their hands on me. … It was just doing my job. My job is to go get the ball.”
Of course, the Steelers had some help. Regular Cincinnati long snapper Drew Harris was injured, so tight end Mitchell Wilcox did the snapping. He delivered the ball on target to holder Kevin Huber, but a tick slower than a professional long snapper would have. That time was what Fitzpatrick needed to get through the line.
“It was (operation) time,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin assessed. “The ball didn’t get there.”
Tomlin said he was aware that it was Wilcox, not Harris, doing the snapping when the block was called. But the players, to a man, say they never noticed that it was No. 84 over the football.
The Steelers went on to win in overtime — after another missed Cincinnati chip shot kick. But suffice to say, the team would’ve been far from close without Fitzpatrick. Oh, and he also led the team with 14 tackles.
“Minkah is a complete player,” defensive captain Cam Heyward said. “A lot of people sleep on Mink and what he’s capable of doing, whether that’s being a box safety or being a ballhawk, or even blocking kicks. … Minkah is a leader. He’s a leader in that secondary. I thought our secondary was all over the field today, picking off balls, challenging that great wide receiver corps.”
The Steelers secondary had three interceptions, with T.J. Watt contributing a fourth. Heyward recovered a fumble, as Burrow turned the ball over five times. Fitzpatrick is a leader, but not a captain, and Tomlin said it’s not because he isn’t capable, but because of the guys like Heyward and Watt ahead of him.
“That’s just when you got a good team,” Tomlin said. “You’ve got guys that are deserving of that recognition, but you can’t trot eight guys out there. Everybody respects that dude not only in terms of his talents and work ethic but his leadership.”