UNITY TWP., Pa. — Minkah Fitzpatrick has his eye on the ball.
The Steelers’ starting free safety was named an NFL All-Pro in his first two years in Pittsburgh. Last season, despite obliterating his previous career high with 1214 tackles, which led the Steelers, Fitzpatrick was not voted one of the top safeties in the league.
One of the differences was his takeaways. Fitzpatrick had five interceptions and two fumble recoveries in 2019 and four interceptions and one fumble recovery in 2020 but just two interceptions and one fumble recovery in 2021. He also failed to score a defensive touchdown for the first time in his career.
So Fitzpatrick has been spending extra time after practice, every day at training camp, catching footballs in every different way imaginable: looking, not looking, jumping, falling, crawling, on his back, behind his back. He’s been routinely one of the last players off the practice field all camp, and he said his mindset in that matter is pretty simple.
“Thing one: I gotta catch the ball,” Fitzpatrick said. “Last year, I had more than a few that I should have gotten. They were tough catches, but definitely need to secure the catches.”
The second thing he sees as key to him getting his hands on the football more in 2022 is moving around the defense more. The Steelers started out working Fitzpatrick in the slot regularly in 2021, an experiment that didn’t go well. Then, they moved him back to the team’s traditional role of centerfield Cover 3 safety.
This year under new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, it seems likely that the Steelers will used more Cover 2 than they have in the past. They have also dabbled in some Cover 4 during training camp. The team has a new three-safety Dime package that should allow the Steelers to deploy Minkah Fitzpatrick wherever they want against opposing teams’ top receiving threats, and the presence of the versatile Cam Sutton back in the slot means that he and Fitzpatrick can trade off coverages at will.
“I feel like when people know where I’m at, then they either choose not to go there or they schemed away from from me or stuff like that. But things just moving me around to get me in different positions. And I’m not saying every single play but just the offense different looks.”
Sutton played in the slot on passing down in Fitzpatrick’s first two seasons. Last year, he moved outside for most of the year before the emergence of Ahkello Witherspoon freed him up to be more of a do-it-all defender like he has been in the past.
He sees himself and Fitzpatrick similarly in that mold, and they are able to react to things they say pre-snap and even during the play that might not necessarily be in the plan from the sideline.
“It’s just that constant communication,” Sutton said. “(Minkah) is a guy who’s obviously seeing that seeing the game from a top down perspective, from what you would call the bird’s eye view type of perspective. Certain things are communicated on different levels that might not be the same as your traditional schematical guy that needs to be in the middle of the field or a guy that needs to be the half-field safety. We see the game different ways. …
“Offense is changing by the day by the year. So we have to do what we have to do to keep putting ourselves in our positions to get off the field and make our own splash plays too.”
The Steelers had a good defense in 2021, but if they want to reach new heights in 2022, getting Minkah Fitzpatrick his hands on the ball will be key.