PITTSBURGH — The band is all the way back together. Pittsburgh Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick said on Friday that he will be making his return to the lineup in Sunday’s Week 13 game against the Arizona Cardinals.
“Well, this week in practice, I felt good, so I’ll be out there,” Fitzpatrick said after Friday’s practice, his third consecutive session working with the first team.
His return will give the Steelers the chance to play with all three of their top defensive stars for the first time in a full game this season, as he, Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt have played together for just two quarters of the team’s 11 games. Heyward suffered a groin injury early in the season opener, and while he was still on the mend, Fitzpatrick suffered a right hamstring injury in the team’s Week 8 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Though head coach Mike Tomlin had expressed optimism that Fitzpatrick might return to practice sooner, it ended up being a four-week absence for the team’s All-Pro safety, thanks to the lingering nature of the injury.
“I feel good. I feel really good,” he said. “A hammy is a hammy so I might feel it a bit, but sometimes you have to play through. But hopefully when I go out there, I don’t feel it at all.”
The Steelers might’ve taken things slow with Fitzpatrick’s return after tied end Pat Freiermuth tried to come back from a hamstring injury earlier this season, only to suffer a setback and land on the injured reserve.
With Fitzpatrick out, the Steelers moved Damontae Kazee from strong safety to free safety, and the veteran drew praise for his communication and leadership skills. At strong safety, Keanu Neal first stepped up from a part-time role to a full-time spot to fill in for Kazee. But then he was injured late in the Steelers’ Week 10 win over the Green Bay Packers and placed on the injured reserve list.
That turned the starting job over to former practice squad player Trenton Thompson, and Thompson stepped upon big time, helping lock down big, athletic Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku in Week 11 and intercepting Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Jake Browning in Week 12, creating a game-changing momentum swing.
Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said it’s possible that Thompson will retain a role in the defense, even with Fitzpatrick’s return.
“We’ll see about that. I think he has,” Austin said. “The last two weeks, talk about a guy, for some people say come out of nowhere, but he was given his opportunity, and I think he thrived in that opportunity. … If he’s a good football player and he can continue to help us, we need to find a place for him.”
Either way, Fitzpatrick is happy to be back in the lineup after a frustrating injury.
Nick Farabaugh provided reporting from Pittsburgh.