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Carter’s Classroom: How Steelers Let Minkah Fitzpatrick Be Himself

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Steelers Minkah Fitzpatrick
Pittsburgh Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick practices during minicamp at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, June 8, 2022 -- ED THOMPSON

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The Steelers made the right call on a contract extension that makes Minkah Fitzpatrick the highest paid safety in NFL history and keeps him with the team through 2026. But there will have to be improvements on the defense to allow Fitzpatrick to play to his strengths and be the key turnover creator he was for the 2019 and 2020 seasons that made him First Team All-Pro in back-to-back years.

Fitzpatrick’s importance to the Steelers isn’t just about his eleven interceptions with the team. He’s also a student of the game whose attention detail shows on film. Here’s a clip used in the NFL’s Top 100 series that showed Fitzpatrick on a key stop of Kyler Murray in 2019.

Notice how Fitzpatrick lined up to aid Mike Hilton in the slot against Larry Fitzgerald. But once Fitzpatrick recognized Murray’s intent to run the option to his left, he broke into the open space to make the stop:

Fitzpatrick combines the unique combination of elite football instincts with elite athleticism to make plays all over the field. He presents a constant threat as a defensive back who can use those skills to disguise his true intent and force quarterbacks into guessing games.

“You can’t just read the coverage and expect him to be in a certain part of the field,” said Joe Burrow during the 2021 season about Fitzpatrick. “He does a good job of understanding where his job is and does a good job of understanding whether the route concept allows him to go to a different area. He’s not always where you expect him to be. He makes a lot of plays doing that.”

Here’s an example of Fitzpatrick against Burrow in 2021 that displayed what Burrow said. Fitzpatrick lined up as the single high safety for the Steelers and Burrow heaved up a deep ball down the right sideline thinking Fitzpatrick couldn’t get there. The 25-year old safety was there to make the interception and wipe out a big play for the Bengals:

“People know where I’m at and they get to choose not to throw or throw the other way and that can happen when you get locked into one spot,” Fitzpatrick said Thursday. “So, we’re learning to adapt to learn different positions and move around the field. And now that I’m comfortable and I know the type of player I am.”

Fitzpatrick’s range to make plays like that saved the Steelers plenty of times. Many of those times came in clutch situations that kept the Steelers in important games. Here was Fitzpatrick in his role of a deep safety in cover two late against the Ravens in a must-win game for the Steelers to make the playoffs.

Watch how much ground Fitzpatrick had to cover to get to the sideline and break up the pass to Marquise Brown:

Fitzpatrick is at his best when he’s allowed to be that floating safety around the Steelers defense who makes those judgment calls and flies to disrupt passes. When the Steelers had a competent run defense in 2019 and 2020 with Fitzpatrick, the defense ranked fifth and third respectively in yards and points allowed.

Not only was Fitzpatrick an ace for those defenses that made him a superstar, he was also a piece to a puzzle that gave the Steelers one of the NFL’s top defenses.

But injuries in 2021 to Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu and a recovering Devin Bush limited how much Fitzpatrick could be in that role. The Steelers’ run defense finished dead last in the NFL for the first time since 1941 and Fitzpatrick had to lead the team with 124 tackles, a single season record for a Steelers defensive back, to make up for that weakness.

Watch how far back Fitzpatrick had to attack to stop Dalvin Cook after he ran through the Steelers’ front:

Fitzpatrick can make those plays and save the Steelers from longer allowed runs. But he’s best served being one of the ultimate chess pieces for Mike Tomlin and Teryl Austin to deploy in the secondary.

The Steelers’ experienced secondary with versatile defensive backs help in this cause. Terrell Edmunds is a safety you can help in deep coverage while being most proficient closer to the line of scrimmage. Damontae Kazee is a newly acquired safety who can play several different roles as is Tre Norwood, who is in a battle to be a slot cornerback for the Steelers with Arthur Maulet.

Combine that with Cameron Sutton’s ability to play outside and in the slot at cornerback along with Ahkello Witherspoon and Levi Wallace, and the Steelers have many ways to hide Fitzpatrick’s true designs.

Here’s an example of when that best benefits the Steelers. Notice how Fitzpatrick lined up in this play against the Browns in 2020 to show a two-high safety look with Edmunds. The design is to show cover two, but disguise Fitzpatrick’s robber role in a cover one defense.

Once Baker Mayfield thought he saw cover two, he saw the middle of the field open for a quick slant. But Fitzpatrick’s range and ability to jump into the robber role fooled him and capitalized with an interception returned for a touchdown:

If the Steelers can restore their run defense to being a competent unit, Fitzpatrick will be able to play the X-factor role that made him an NFL superstar safety. And if that happens, it’s a big piece of the Steelers’ puzzle to get back to having an elite defense.

 

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