In the first half of this article we looked at stats to show that the Pittsburgh Steelers defense has turned into one of the better units in the NFL since adding Minkah Fitzpatrick in week 3. For this second part we are going to dig deeper into the stats to show how one player can make that much of a difference on a football team’s fortunes.
Trickle-down football economics
It seems ridiculous to argue that one player can turn a below average defense into a top 10 defense. The kind of statistical difference between the Steelers without Minkah Fitzpatrick and the Steelers with Fitzpatrick is difficult to find even among Hall of Fame players. I understand the skepticism people will have, you should be skeptical, especially when Minkah Fitzpatrick doesn’t have stats that jump out at you as being franchise altering.
The truth is that football is a team sport, and Minkah Fitzpatrick has made such an impact on the Pittsburgh Steelers because he is allowing other players to play to their strengths more, and is covering their weaknesses. For example, I mentioned in part 1 that Terrell Edmunds was playing deep middle safety a good bit in the first two games, and didn’t really switch into what he is playing now until game 4. Minkah Fitzpatrick made a big difference in Terrell Edmunds game, and he took Kameron Kelly off the field for most plays. Take a look at what PFR advanced stats show about the Steelers safeties in pass defense.
Targeting Steeler Safeties
That’s a huge difference. If you look into individual numbers, you see that after week 3 Terrell Edmunds isn’t getting targeted much at all, and while Minkah Fitzpatrick is getting a good number of targets, those targets are less successful than they were against Kelly, Edmunds or Davis.
Another difference that stands out is the success opposing teams have had with deep passes against the Steelers this season. I’m using PFR data, and they count deep passes as ones that travel in the air at least 15 yards.
Important note: the %yards column shows the yards given up divided by the opponent’s yards per deep attempt times the number of deep attempts actually taken against the Steelers, or essentially, the percentage of expected yards per pass allowed by the Steelers, being a defensive stat, lower is better. The %yards spot in the last line (the Total row) shows the actual yards given up to deep passes this season, versus what would have been given up if each team had their average deep passing game.
Baltimore and Cincinnati average a lot of deep passes, and against the Steelers they only attempted 2 each, and both ended up with zero yards and an interception to show for it, while the Chargers, one of the most prolific deep pass teams in the NFL, threw deep a lot in their comeback bid. A low completion percentage and low yards after catch, even with both starting corners out, led to under 75% of their normal yards per deep attempt, and a Steeler win. Since Minkah Fitzpatrick joined the team the Steelers have yet to give up a deep ball TD, and since week 4 they are giving up 42.2% of expected deep ball yards per game, and have an interception in three straight games.
Because the Steelers are taking away deep passes so effectively, the job of the slot corners has gotten significantly easier. Any defender in any sport plays better knowing the players behind them can be trusted to do their job. It allows them to be more aggressive on the ball and less worried about giving up big plays. Look at the stats for Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton so far this season:
With the Safeties taking away deep passes teams attacked the Steelers slot corners more than twice as often than in the first three weeks, but with help behind them they were able to play those passes more aggressively and the results show it. The difference is biggest for Mike Hilton, who has always been at his best when he is able to be physical and aggressive, and with Edmunds and Fitzpatrick playing so well behind him he’s been much more aggressive defending slot receivers.
Wrapping it up
Another big factor in the Steelers defense improving has been the Steelers improved play against TEs and RBs. A combination of Mark Barron, Devin Bush, and Terrell Edmunds have been the main defenders on those position this season, and the Steelers rank 10th in DVOA against TEs and 5th against RBs, both significant improvements from last year.
But the biggest improvements have been things that all stem from Minkah Fitzpatrick turning a key position from a question mark before the season and a huge problem the first two games into a source of strength that lets the other defenders do their job better. With Devin Bush and Minkah Fitzpatrick under contract for the next few years the Steelers defense looks to be in very good hands.