When the Steelers acquired Minkah Fitzpatrick from the Miami Dolphins, I wrote this article, arguing that the Steelers defense was already showing they could be a good unit with a capable starting free safety. Two games later, after the blowout of Cincinnati, I wrote that the Steelers defense had a chance to be one of the best in the NFL. Since I wrote that the Steelers have played two more games, and the defense has not disappointed.
As the Steelers come out of the bye week and into the rest of their season, I want to take a look at statistics that show that Minkah Fitzpatrick has had a real impact, and also look at how he has had such an impact. This first part will cover the change in the Steeler defense since Minkah Fitzpatrick joined the team.
A tale of two defenses
The first two games the Steelers defense showed 2 things, that when Sean Davis was healthy they could play defense, and that with Kameron Kelly or injured Sean Davis at FS they couldn’t stop anyone. In the 7 drives Sean Davis was healthy and playing the Steelers gave up 29.6 yards and 1 point per drive to the Seattle Seahawks. After his injury and against New England with Kelly starting the Steelers defense gave up 45.5 yards and 3.6 points per drive. The worst defense in the NFL right now is Atlanta, and they are giving up 38.7 yards and 3.01 points per drive.
Against San Francisco the Steelers allowed 31.1 yards and 1.7 points per drive. San Francisco is an interesting game, the film shows Minkah Fitzpatrick out there playing Safety and making plays, but when you watch the 2 games that followed that one, his role was different. The biggest point for me is that against San Francisco they still had Terrell Edmunds dropping into zones he had been dropping into to cover for Kameron Kelly. Edmunds isn’t a good deep middle zone safety, he’s far better in mid or shallow zones or in man coverage, and he’s solid in cover 2, but he’s not good at deep middle zones. Starting with the Cincinnati game you see Edmunds and Fitzpatrick dividing the safety roles to focus more on what they do best, and the results really show the difference.
Pittsburgh demolished Cincinnati’s offense, and then faced the #1 offense in the NFL, the Baltimore Ravens, whom they held to 2.2 points and 23.1 yards per drive. While the Steelers lost that game, it was the best defensive performance per possession this year against the Ravens. Lastly the Steelers went to the West Coast to face the Chargers, and even with the late surge of offense from the Chargers with the Steelers missing 4 defensive starters, including both starting CBs the Steelers held on for the win and held the Chargers offense to 1.7 points per drive, even while giving up 34.8 yards per drive.
Just reading the yards per drive stats doesn’t do much for context. I’ve already showed that the Steelers without a healthy FS were worse than the worst defenses in the NFL right now, but what about since then? Since Minkah Fitzpatrick joined the team the Steelers have given up 1.6 points and 27.5 yards per drive, both of which would rank 7th best in the NFL.
The Steelers defense since adding Fitzpatrick also ranks #2 in the NFL in turnovers forced and No. 1 in percentage of defensive possessions resulting in a turnover.
I’d like to take it one step farther, because just looking at drive stats, while more accurate than game totals, still leaves in the problem that defenses aren’t facing the same offenses each week. So for the last part of this section let’s look at what the Steelers gave up each game versus what the opposing offense’s average production per drive tells us they should be expected to produce in that game.
When you see it as a percentage of what the opposing team would be expected to produce, it really shows how well the Steelers defense is playing. It really stands out that with Stephon Tuitt, Joe Haden and Steven Nelson all playing and Minkah Fitzpatrick in Miami the defense gave up a higher percentage of expected yards and points than they did with Nelson and Tuitt out and Haden missing most of the 4th quarter and Fitzpatrick at FS.
It is undeniable that since Minkah Fitzpatrick joined the Steelers the defense has improved, going from one of the worst defenses the first two weeks to one of the better defenses in the NFL. In the second part of this series we will dig into more stats to see how one player can have that much of an impact on a team.