The Steelers are scheduled to face a depleted Ravens team on Tuesday that is missing lots of players across the board. While the focus for the Steelers is on Tuesday, there are still a lot of great performances that flew under the radar from the Jacksonville win as a result of the week’s dramatics. Most notably, the performance of a Steelers defense that gave no room for the Jaguars offense to move the ball. The Steelers surrendered a measly three points and forced four turnovers.
The most impressive part of that performance was the Pittsburgh safety duo of Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds, who were the catalysts for a big defensive day. Between Edmunds and Fitzpatrick, the pair accounted for two interceptions each against Jaguars quarterback Jake Luton. However, this is not the first game that these two have meshed well. It is a season-long trend. This is the best Steelers safety duo in a long while, and they are a critical part of the team’s success. Now, with the splash play element from Edmunds they are a game-changing duo on the back half of the defense.
This all goes back to the very basics of the Steelers defense that Keith Butler and Mike Tomlin run. It is a complex, pattern-matching scheme that calls for a lot of high-level communication and versatility in the secondary. With aggressive blitzes added to the mix this year, communication is paramount to the success of the Steelers defense. The pass rush can only get home so often, so the secondary needs to help bail these guys out from time to time. That very principal is the basis of the Steelers defense this year.
Off of that pattern matching scheme, safeties are the very basis for everything the scheme asks. Minkah Fitzpatrick is the true impact player as a deep safety. In the league today, deep safeties like Fitzpatrick are overlooked, but his impact was felt on a wide scale last year and that has not changed this year. Fitzpatrick is a special talent with elite instincts, ball skills, and an innate sense for the field. He has traits that coaches can not teach and those traits are what secondary coaches dream of seeing in their free safety.
Many call Fitzpatrick lucky when it comes to his interception numbers largely due to the fact that he gets many of his interceptions off of tipped balls. However, in reality, this is not luck, but phenomenal fundamentals from the 2019 First-Team All-Pro. Tyson Alualu makes a great play by batting this at the line of scrimmage, but Fitzpatrick is already making a straight line towards the catch point. Few guys can take on step back to then read and react at that speed. Fitzpatrick is reading the route combination and anticipating the spot of this throw.
The ability to drive on the football is a trait that is so underrated in defensive backs. It requires awareness, explosiveness, physicality, and ball skills to complete the process. This is the trait that separates Fitzpatrick from a lot of other guys at safety. His innate awareness and ability to drive to wherever the football ends up is elite. Notice how Fitzpatrick shifts his angle on the fly once he processes the tip and easily gets to the catch point for an interception. Those tipped balls are all about that drive trait and combining his mental and physical gifts together. This is not luck.
On the opposite side of Fitzpatrick is Edmunds. Now, Edmunds is a guy with a checkered past with the Steelers. He was defined as the weak link prior to the season, but he has not been anywhere near that this season. Edmunds has played at a high level and is experiencing a breakout season. His instincts, ball skills, discipline, and tackling have taken a significant step forward in a critical year three for him.
The key with Edmunds is that he is essentially a chess piece for this defense. Edmunds plays in the slot, as a box safety, as a linebacker, as the deep safety, and basically condenses all those roles into one person and does it all at a high level. That makes him the glue guy for this defense on the back end. Take him out, and the Steelers can not disguise coverages like they want to and they most certainly can not use Fitzpatrick how they want to use him. The robber role Fitzpatrick has played this year is because the team feels comfortable with Edmunds patrolling the single-high spot. Without that, Fitzpatrick would be relegated to deep safety duty all game, thus making him a lesser factor.
Edmunds’ second interception is a great example of how his growth has allowed the Steelers to really mix up their coverages. This is Cover 3 Buzz, and Edmunds is doing the role of a robber in this middle zone. The Steelers rarely use both Edmunds and Fitzpatrick as double robbers, but they do it here. Mike Hilton instead inserts in as the middle of the field safety, thus fooling Luton’s eyes thinking that DJ Chark would be open. Edmunds reads Luton’s eyes perfectly and makes a phenomenal play on the ball to get the interception. His improved traits allowed the Steelers to disguise this coverage and force Luton to make an errant throw.
As far as his other role, Edmunds loves to play down in the box and get involved in run defense. The Steelers love it too, as Edmunds has missed only two tackles on the year, which is the lowest amount of the entire team. Plays like this one are where Edmunds does not make a flashy play, but makes a fundamentally sound play. Edmunds reads the flow of the offense as an outside zone run and realizes that no one else is there to fill the cutback lane. He charges downhill, fills the cutback lane, and makes the tackle. That is good processing and a perfect run fit from Edmunds.
The Steelers have a fantastic safety duo on their hands that makes this defense really hum like it should. The impact of Fitzpatrick is widely noted, but it is time that Edmunds gets his due as well in this scheme. Without these two, the Steelers defense would collapse in upon itself. The young duo is one that should only get more comfortable with each other as the years go along with each other.
JuJu Smith-Schuster Asks Fans to Give him Space
JuJu Smith-Schuster is experiencing the negative side effect of living so much of his personal life in the public eye. The Steelers receiver, who is looking for a new NFL contract, took to Instagram to ask fans to leave him alone.
This stems from allegations that fans are showing up to his family home in California while he is there. Obviously, fans have no right to show up unwelcome anywhere to stalk an an athlete or celebrity, but this is just another example of the polarization of Smith-Schuster’s career. While he’s received much criticism, most notably this past season, for his sometimes over-the-top behavior and seemingly prioritizing his brand at all times, he also has many avid supporters who would stop at nothing to defend one of their favorite players.
Smith-Schuster is set to be a free agent in March for the first time in his professional career. If the Steelers should try to bring back the receiver has become a hot debate among Pittsburgh fans, so much so Smith-Schuster himself addressed the situation during a live Twitch sessions with fans.
Even Smith-Schuster’s play on the field is often up for debate. He totaled 97 receptions, but for only 831 yards with an average of just 8.6 yards per catch, which is significantly lower than his average from past seasons, including 15.8 his rookie year and 13.1 in 2019.
When it comes to JuJu Smith-Schuster, it’s always best to just stay tuned.
Steelers’ Vance McDonald Reflects on Stiff Arm Moment, Relationship with Ben Roethlisberger
Steelers tight end Vance McDonald spoke to the media after officially announcing his retirement from the NFL. McDonald responded to a question about the play he’s most synonymous with by saying he embraces the famous stiff arm moment. He also detailed his interaction with Ben Roethlisberger when he told his quarterback he was planning to retire.
Steelers TE Kevin Rader Aced Week 17 Audition, More Coming in 2021?
The Steelers have an opening in their tight ends room, as four-year starter Vance McDonald retired on Friday.
That leaves Eric Ebron as the team’s projected starter for 2021, and that won’t be a big change, as Ebron out-snapped McDonald and started nine games to McDonald’s 12. Without another veteran option, it’s likely the Steelers will use fewer two-tight end sets, but the issue of backups will need to be addressed.
Michigan product and former fifth-round pick Zach Gentry has yet to be a factor through two seasons and missed most of 2020 with an injury, but as he’s under contract and the team is facing a salary cup crunch, he seems likely to hold onto that job.
The Steelers have options for a third tight end, securing the services of Dax Raymond and Charles Jones on reserve/future contracts for the 2021 season on Thursday. But the man that seems most likely to step up into that role is third-year pro Kevin Rader.
Rader, a Pine-Richland and Youngstown State alum spent his second season with the Steelers in 2020, but got his first taste of action in Week 17 at Cleveland with the Steelers choosing to rest starters.
He made the most of the opportunity, particularly on special teams, where he played in nearly half of the team’s snaps, made three tackles and drew praise from head coach Mike Tomlin.
“Guys like Kevin Rader had an opportunity to step up and play,” Tomlin said. “I think he had three tackles on kickoff. For an offensive player to have that type of contribution in net, in a coverage unit I think was impressive. That’s good for him. That’s good for us as we move forward.”
Rader is also on a reserve/future contract, with no guaranteed money for 2021, but if he can continue to show the ability to contribute on special teams and help as a blocker, where McDonald excelled and Ebron does not, it seems that he can certainly carve himself out a role in Pittsburgh in 2021.