The Steelers traded their first-round pick last year in a shocking move to acquire Dolphins safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. When they did it, there were reactions across the board, but once Fitzpatrick stepped onto the field, there no more discussion. Fitzpatrick was a First-Team All-Pro and difference-maker for the Steelers on the back end of the defense. However, a slow start to the 2020 season has raised some concerns about Fitzpatrick. What exactly is going on, and what is to blame for the supposed ‘slow’ start?
A Multitude of Factors Contribute to Fitzpatrick’s Quiet Season
There are numerous things surrounding Fitzpatrick that are contributing to the view that he is having an off-season. While he certainly is not playing at the level he was in 2019, this is still a talented player who is playing much better on film than it would appear to the casual eye. The Steelers defense is not helping Fitzpatrick much, either. The coverages that the Steelers give Fitzpatrick puts him and others in the secondary in a tough bind.
Here is a phenomenal example of how Fitzpatrick is being hung out to dry. The Steelers, even after dialing back their blitz rate since the game against Cleveland, still bring the heat more often than not. With that in mind, it puts the defense into a lot of Cover 1 and man coverage looks across the board. As such, Fitzpatrick is the only player in the middle of the field. If the blitz is not getting home, teams can run a Hi-Lo route combination over the middle of the field to draw Fitzpatrick out of the play. Both Joe Haden and Mike Hilton play with outside leverage as they feed their guy to Fitzpatrick. The issue is Fitzpatrick can only take one of these routes, thus naturally leaving a wide-open man in the middle of the field. As such, it puts Fitzpatrick in a bind, and he takes the post, and the crosser becomes open. This is part of the tough assignments Fitzpatrick has been asked to complete this year.
Against the Eagles in Week 4, a similar play happens, as the Eagles run a simple two-route combination against a pre-snap Cover 1 look. The difference here is that the Eagles go into max protect to shut down the blitz and it allows the route combination to really set up quite well. In another example of how Fitzpatrick gets pushed into the parking lot, he realizes the route combination and goes to cut off the deep route, which he does. However, with Steven Nelson expecting help from the inside as well, the Eagles get an easy completion instead. The single-high Cover 1 coverages off of blitzes are leaving Fitzpatrick in a vulnerable spot. The issue is he can only help out of his two cornerbacks expecting help. The quarterbacks then throw wherever Fitzpatrick is not.
This is something that even plagued the Steelers against the Titans. In this play, they are simply lucky that the pass rush got hone. This is leaving Fitzpatrick in a tough spot, but this is a straight-up miscommunication. Similar to the Darius Slayton touchdown in week one, this is the same play from the Titans. The issue here is Fitzpatrick and Joe Haden bail deep with AJ Brown and leave Corey Davis wide open underneath. Due to the binds they have put Fitzpatrick and Haden in this year on this specific call, the Steelers’ “zombie” call, they have been switching around the rules. The secondary thus mixing up the rules on this play likely due to these switches in rules in the pattern match coverage. This is just another example of these Cover 1 blitzes potentially hurting the Steelers.
The Titans actually fake the two-man deep shot and instead give Fitzpatrick a rare opportunity to attack. However, due to past coverages in this situation, Fitzpatrick stays a step back fearing the post route over the top of his Cover 1 coverage. As for the rest of it, Vince Williams does bite badly on this play action. Fitzpatrick commented this week that he was expecting Williams to tip this and thus he was in a position to get an interception in that case. However, Fitzpatrick does stop his feet, and as such, Brown hits the gas pedal for a big-time touchdown. This play can fall on Fitzpatrick’s shoulders, but the prior expectations from the same look are in his head.
Things get much better when Fitzpatrick works in two-high looks rather than these single-high, Cover 1 blitzes. It is inevitable that Cover 1 coverage will show up at times, but the Titans get stifled across the board here, and Fitzpatrick has helped over the middle of the field as Robert Spillane backpedals to cut off the crosser over the middle of the field. No one really comes to Fitzpatrick’s side, but had they, he would have been in a much more manageable position rather than in an impossible bind.
Fitzpatrick works extremely well and comfortably in the robber role. The Steelers run Cover 1 Robber on this play, Fitzpatrick squats in the middle of the field over the slant, Baker Mayfield fails to see him, and as such Fitzpatrick gets the pick six. Over the course of the season, Fitzpatrick has looked his best when he rotates down into the middle of the field to takeaway throwing lanes. It is where he can make the splash plays that are missing at a consistent rate, too.
The bottom line with Fitzpatrick is he is a talented player who is being put in tough schematic spots. Part of the issue with the coverage the Steelers have run this season in the fact that on Cover 1 blitzes Fitzpatrick becomes a non-factor. Any two route combinations over the middle of the field versus that look will make Fitzpatrick look bad to the casual viewer, but in reality, the scheme puts him in a tough spot. In coverage, Fitzpatrick has done his job and done it well. There should be no worries there. His tackling is an issue that even he acknowledged this week, but for a star free safety, the coverage part of the equation matters more. Do not panic about Fitzpatrick’s play, he is still an outstanding player.