Minkah Fitzpatrick has been with the Steelers long enough now for everyone to know what a dangerous free safety he is and what he can do from various alignments. However, there is one key role that Fitzpatrick plays at an elite level, perhaps better than anyone in the league, that feels especially pertinent to their success in the 2023 season.
That role is the robber or rat in the hole role. What does that mean? Made popular by Nick Saban while he was at Alabama, the robber role or rat refers to that secondary defender in the intermediate middle of the field to jump on those intermediate and crossing routes. Fitzpatrick did this at Alabama and has done it plenty with the Steelers, too. Here is one such example where he takes back a pick-six off Baker Mayfield.
Pretty simple stuff from the Steelers. Two-high look pre-snap, roll Minkah down into the robber role post-snap. Baker pre-determines his read pre-snap and doesn't adjust for the post-snap look. Nice disguise, Steelers take advantage of it pic.twitter.com/8MKfvKv7Ir
— Nick Farabaugh (@FarabaughFB) October 18, 2020
This works for the Steelers because it works off their Cover 1 and Cover 3 pressures while allowing a lot of changes on the back end of the defense. They don’t want to give up that easy low crosser completion over the middle of the field that teams commonly employ as hot routes. That is why you see a lot of the hot route completions against the Steelers often become curls or out routes, for what it’s worth.
But back to Fitzpatrick and what his role in all of this is right now. The robber role is all about reading the eyes of the quarterback and being a ballhawk. It’s why Fitzpatrick is arguably the best in that role in the NFL. He is elite at both of those very things. The entire secondary should be banking on becoming ballhawks. But the real proof in the pudding of this concept is that Pittsburgh seems built to be a Cover 3-based team this year.
If you look at all of the players they have acquired, there is a certain flexibility and floor that coverage allows them. With the length of Joey Porter Jr. and Cory Trice, it all makes sense. They could work in press bail, taking from the old Legion of Boom Seahawks and get up on players and make them feel their length. Patrick Peterson’s instincts and press experience make him fit this mold, too.
The length, press ability, and high IQ players they added make me think this team is really heading towards playing a lot of Cover 3 and single-high-based coverages. That means someone will have to be over the top of the defense. But will that be Fitzpatrick? Sure, of course, it will be sometimes. I’m betting that Damontae Kazee will see a lot of work on that back end in the single-high role, though.
Fitzpatrick’s role as a robber can do a few things to help this defense. One, it allows them to play in those single-high shells and Cover 3 bases. Second, it puts Fitzpatrick right in the center of everything. Free safeties can be a little easier to take out of the play when they are in their deep-roaming single-high spot, but not when they are robbing the middle of the field. Third, it instantly takes the pressure off the linebackers in coverage.
The third point is as important as any right now. Yes, it works well because the secondary personnel makes a lot of sense for Cover 3. But the linebacking corps lacks a true go-to coverage guy over the middle there. Fitzpatrick roaming down over the middle would take a lot of pressure off them over the course of the season. Without a move there, the robber’s role becomes even more important.
The Steelers will run Cover 2, quarters, and other coverages, of course. They are a multiple coverage defense that Mike Tomlin has made into a melting pot of his mentors over the years. Still, that does not mean they will not lean one way or another into their identity. Expect a lot of action for Fitzpatrick in this role to correspond with some of the moves the team has made.