The Steelers rolled the dice in mid-September with an uncharacteristic blockbuster trade, sending their 2020 first-rounder (and some late-round pick swaps) to the Dolphins for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. At the time, that deal seemed bold—maybe even a little bit reckless—for an 0-2 team with its quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, headed to the injured reserve. And the optics around the trade deteriorated significantly over the next few weeks, with Pittsburgh dropping to 1-4 and seemingly headed toward a lost season and bottom-five finish―with their upcoming top pick in Miami’s hands.
But the Steelers never panicked, and instead of lamenting the loss of Roethlisberger and his typically high-octane passing attack, the team leaned instead on its suddenly stifling defense—which underwent a near-complete transformation after adding Fitzpatrick. He has proved to be the exact type of playmaker the Steelers have been searching for the past few years, the missing puzzle piece that’s made an already talented group of individuals work together as a cohesive unit. Thanks to Fitzpatrick’s galvanizing power, the Steelers’ ascending defense has carried the team to wins in six of its past seven games—and has Pittsburgh on the cusp of a playoff berth.
Part of the Steelers’ early-season struggles can be attributed to its gantlet-like slate to open the season: In the first five weeks, Pittsburgh faced the Patriots, Seahawks, 49ers, Bengals, and Ravens—a group of teams with a collective 41-19 record through 13 weeks (take away 1-11 Cincinnati and that collective record is 40-8). But while the team’s lighter midseason schedule has certainly helped, Fitzpatrick’s acquisition has been a key factor in putting the Steelers’ once-vulnerable middle of the field on lockdown.
There’s symbiosis in that shift: The Steelers’ porous secondary was in dire need of an instinctive coverage man capable of ranging sideline-to-sideline and making opponents think twice about airing it out down the middle. And on the other side of the coin, Pittsburgh has been a godsend for Fitzpatrick, who grew frustrated in Miami as the team moved him between multiple spots from game to game, asking him to play both safety spots, linebacker at times, and cornerback at others. While that versatility was certainly part of the allure that made Fitzpatrick a first-round pick out of Alabama in 2018, he evidently felt he was being misused in anything but that crucial free safety role. The good news for Fitzpatrick is that’s exactly how the Steelers have deployed him for the most part in the past 10 games.
The second-year pro has taken his simplified role and performed spectacularly in it. The Steelers’ numbers before and after Fitzpatrick offer a stark contrast: In the first two weeks of the season, the team’s safety trio of Sean Davis, Terrell Edmunds, and Kameron Kelly surrendered a combined 11 receptions on 14 attempts for 215 yards and two touchdowns. Since taking over in the middle of the field, Fitzpatrick has surrendered an opponent passer rating of just 26.4 in coverage―third among all qualifying safeties since Week 3―per Pro Football Focus. He’s allowed a 46.7 percent completion rate and just 7 total yards after the catch (on seven catches) in that 10-game stretch, notching five interceptions to zero touchdowns. Read those numbers again: Fitzpatrick has allowed seven catches while recording five picks—when quarterbacks throw in his direction, he’s nearly as likely to catch the football as is the wideout he’s covering.
Fitzpatrick’s presence in the middle of Pittsburgh’s defense has acted as a strong deterrent to opponents’ deep passing attacks. Per Sharp Football Stats, through the first two weeks the Steelers gave up 10 pass plays of 20-plus yards (tied for fourth most), surrendering those explosive pass plays at a 13 percent rate (tied for seventh worst). In the 10 games since, Pittsburgh has surrendered a combined 25 explosive pass plays (fifth best) and allowed an explosive pass play on just 7 percent of pass attempts (tied for fifth lowest).
The contrast is clear when compared to last season too. In 2018, the Steelers allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 20 of 36 passes for 522 yards and three touchdowns while picking off just one pass (a 117.0 passer rating) down the deep middle of the field, per Sharp Football Stats. Since Fitzpatrick took over as the team’s primary free safety in Week 3, Pittsburgh has surrendered a 61 passer rating on passes to the deep middle, with opposing quarterbacks completing just 10 of 18 attempts to that area of the field, with zero touchdowns and three picks.
Fitzpatrick’s stat line in 10 games with the team is absurd: In addition to those five picks, he’s recovered two fumbles, forced a fumble, knocked down nine passes, and scored two touchdowns (a pick-six and a fumble recovery score). And while the ascending star has played a much more defined role for Pittsburgh this season, he’s still shown just how versatile he can be, alternating between deep-centerfield coverage and more free-flowing lurk type roles, where he can read the quarterback’s eyes, fly downhill, or jump into a passing lane at the last second.
Against the Browns last week, Fitzpatrick lined up in what looked like a two-deep shell, but at the snap, he dropped down into coverage over the slot, quickly anticipating Cleveland receiver Jarvis Landry’s route and jumping in front of him to break up the pass.
Fitzpatrick’s talent for almost instantaneously deciphering opponents’ route combinations shows up in just about every game. Against the Chargers in Week 6, he lined up in the deep middle of the field pre-snap, but instead of carrying slot receiver Mike Williams up the seam, he came off that route and jumped Keenan Allen’s in-breaking route underneath, nearly picking off Philip Rivers.
One of my favorite plays by Fitzpatrick this season was this one from Week 10. With the Rams facing a crucial third-and-4 deep in Pittsburgh territory, the rangy safety jumped a Cooper Kupp drag route, flying downhill like a heat-seeking missile to intercept the L.A. receiver, contacting him just as the ball arrived to break up the pass and force a fourth down.
Fitzpatrick showed off those route-recognition skills against the Colts in Week 9, too, breaking on an attempted seam pass to Jack Doyle, intercepting it, and returning it 96 yards for a score.
The 6-foot-1, 207-pound playmaker has also shown off the ability to move backward at the snap, tracking this deep bomb attempt by former teammate Ryan Fitzpatrick in Week 8. Starting out as the deep centerfielder, Fitzpatrick (Minkah, that is) carried the slot receiver deep, flipped his hips, and maintained leverage while putting himself in position to leap up and make the grab.
And he can come down hill and deliver big stops against the run when he needs to. On this play against the 49ers in Week 3 (his debut with the team), Fitzpatrick dislodged the ball from running back Raheem Mostert, and it was recovered by Pittsburgh.
A handful of Fitzpatrick’s headline-grabbing plays have been in the “right place at the right time” variety, but this happens too often for it to just be dumb luck. The safety just seems to be able to anticipate where the ball is going and get himself in position to affect the play.
After two games, the Steelers defense ranked 30th in defensive DVOA. Now, with 13 weeks in the books, it ranks third. This tweet really says it all:
Over their last 10 games of 2019, the Steelers rank 1st in the NFL in takeaways (28), 1st in QB hits (78), 1st in passes defended (65), 1st in forced fumbles (17), 1st in fumble recoveries (13), 2nd in interceptions (15), 2nd in sacks (38) & tied— Missi Matthews (@missi_matthews) December 1, 2019
for 3rd in defensive TDs (3). pic.twitter.com/9dluehj9n0
Fitzpatrick can’t take all the credit for Pittsburgh’s turnaround, obviously—the team’s interior defensive line is solid as a rock, edge rushers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree are balling out, cornerback Joe Haden has come on strong, and rookie linebacker Devin Bush Jr. is flying around and making plays. But it’s clear that this group wouldn’t look the same without Fitzpatrick patrolling the middle of the field. The second-year pro has already shown why the team was willing to take such a massive gamble and trade for him. And now he’s got a chance to help propel Pittsburgh into the postseason.