On September 16, Pittsburgh announced that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would be placed on injured reserve with an elbow injury. What seemed like the end of the Steelers’ season was in fact the beginning. The same day, general manager Kevin Colbert sent a first-round pick to Miami for defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, an Alabama safety the Dolphins drafted no. 11 in 2018. The move was out of character. The trade left Pittsburgh without a first-rounder for the first time since 1968. It also looked desperate. The Steelers had fallen to 0-2, including one of the most embarrassing games in recent memory in a 33-3 beatdown by the Patriots in Week 1. Roethlisberger was out for the season, and the team had just traded one of its backup quarterbacks, Joshua Dobbs, to the Jaguars. Pittsburgh lost again in Week 3 to the 49ers, beat the winless Bengals in Week 4, and then lost again to the Ravens in Week 5 to fall to 1-4 through five weeks. The Steelers were looking poised for the first losing season of Mike Tomlin’s head coaching career. The pick the Steelers sent to Miami looked like it could end up in the top 10.
Less than two months after the deal, it’s clear the Fitzpatrick trade has saved Pittsburgh’s season. Pittsburgh has won four consecutive games, and now the team has more than a 50 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight’s projections. That shocking turnaround is due almost entirely to Fitzpatrick and the Steelers’ resilient defense propping up an inept offense. Sunday’s 17-12 grinding victory against the Rams was just the latest showcase for Pittsburgh’s newest star.
With the game tied at 7-7 with less than two minutes to go before halftime, nose tackle Javon Hargrave sacked Goff while he was winding up to throw, and Goff launched the fumble forward like a bloop single. Fitzpatrick fielded the errant fumble like a shortstop and returned it 43 yards to give the Steelers a 14-7 lead at halftime.
Fitzpatrick added another exclamation point at the end of the game.
With the Rams down five points with under 30 seconds left in the fourth quarter on their own 42-yard line, Goff threw a pass for receiver Robert Woods that was deflected by cornerback Joe Haden and into the arms of Fitzpatrick to seal the win.
Fitzpatrick has been in the right place at the right time ever since showing up in Pittsburgh. It’s the third week in a row Fitzpatrick has made a game-changing play at a pivotal moment. Last week against Indianapolis, the Steelers were trailing 10-3 just before the end of the first half. The Colts had the ball on the Steelers 20-yard line and were threatening to make it 17-3 at halftime. Colts backup quarterback Brian Hoyer tossed a pass to tight end Jack Doyle at the goal line for a touchdown, but Fitzpatrick jumped the route, intercepted the ball, and sprinted down the sideline for a 96-yard touchdown to tie the game at 10.
#Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick — Playing the post in Cover 3. Depth from LB Devin Bush (forces the QB to put more air under the ball ) + Fitzpatrick reading eyes & driving on the seam route. Pick-six... @NFLMatchup pic.twitter.com/coJvnDpwYV— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) November 6, 2019
The Steelers won that game 26-24 and likely would have lost if not for Fitzpatrick’s pick (and Adam Vinatieri’s missed game-winner). But that wasn’t even his best game of the season. That came the week before against his former team on Monday Night Football. Fitzpatrick intercepted Ryan Fitzpatrick (a Fitzpatrick-on-Fitzpatrick crime) on the Dolphins’ final full drive of the first half and again on their first drive of the second half. Each turnover led to a Steelers touchdown drive, turning a 14-3 deficit into a 17-14 Pittsburgh lead. Pittsburgh escaped with a 27-14 win that spared them a loss to the then-winless Dolphins that would have been rock bottom for the Mike Tomlin–era.
Since the trade, the Steelers are 5-2 and Fitzpatrick leads the league in interceptions. Pittsburgh’s defense has gone from allowing 30.5 points and 445 yards per game before acquiring him to letting up 17.1 points and 300 yards per game. He has been the most visible part of a defense that has dragged Pittsburgh’s offense back to a 5-4 record. But he is just one part of a defense that is quietly among the league’s best. They entered the week as the fifth-most efficient defense per Football Outsiders. Many of the turnovers he’s accrued have been because of the Steelers’ pass rush. Outside linebacker T.J. Watt had two sacks on Sunday, and got his first just before halftime by going around and then dipping under Rams tackle Rob Havenstein.
TJ Watt recorded 6.5 sacks his past 5 games and now added another one.pic.twitter.com/BeWoxpQVSe— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) November 10, 2019
On the Rams’ final drive, Watt strip-sacked Goff just three plays before Fitzpatrick’s game-sealing pick, but the Rams recovered.
Watt leads the league in quarterback hits (22), just ahead of his brother J.J., who had 20 before a torn pectoral muscle ended his season. Fellow pass rusher Bud Dupree has already tied his career high in sacks (six). Entering the week, the Steelers pressured quarterbacks on 30 percent of dropbacks, the second-highest rate after San Francisco, and Pittsburgh had the fifth-most sacks in the league. From Week 3 to Week 9, the Steelers tied with the Panthers for the second-most interceptions with 11 (the Patriots are no. 1 with 14), tied with New England for the third-most sacks (24), and had the third-lowest opposing passer rating (74.6). Pittsburgh’s pass rush has not gotten the same press as San Francisco’s, but it has been almost as good. That’s not new. The Steelers have the most sacks since the beginning of 2017. What is new is an elite playmaking ballhawk who can take advantage of the errant throws their pass rush creates.
Pittsburgh has needed its defense to be as good as they’ve been because its offense is immobile. In Pittsburgh’s games without Roethlisberger leading into this week, the Steelers were 30th in first downs, ahead of only Washington and the Jets, 31st in offensive plays (ahead of only the Jets), and 28th in total yardage (ahead of Washington, Miami, the Jets, and the Bears). What separates Pittsburgh’s offense from that group is eliminating mistakes. In that same span from Week 3 to Week 9, the Steelers have taken the fewest sacks (six) and committed a league-average amount of turnovers (nine, the same number as New England). Some credit for that goes to Tomlin, who has decided to slow Pittsburgh’s games to a crawl to accommodate his young quarterbacks (or perhaps minimize how often they can screw up). Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges have been as efficient as Sam Darnold and Luke Falk, but they’ve limited their mistakes like Tom Brady.
Winning with that kind of offense seems unsustainable, but the Steelers could get away with it. Their final seven games are Cleveland, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Arizona, Buffalo, New York Jets, and Baltimore. Considering their losses this season, that’s not so bad. After getting blown out by New England in Week 1, they lost to the Seahawks, 49ers, and Ravens—three of the league’s best teams—by a combined nine points. Meanwhile, the 7-2 Ravens still have to play the 49ers and Texans, so Pittsburgh could head into their Week 17 matchup with Baltimore with the chance to secure a wild-card spot and an outside chance to win the AFC North. That would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago. The Steelers made a gamble on this season, but they don’t need luck when they’ve got magic on their side.