It’s been three weeks since the Steelers traded their first round pick in the 2020 draft to the Miami Dolphins for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. The price tag for acquiring the talented 22 year-old was steep, as are expectations that Fitzpatrick will solidify the back end of a Steelers defense that hasn’t had a top-notch free safety since Ryan Clark departed in 2014. A three game sample size isn’t enough to draw definitive conclusions on whether Fitzpatrick has met expectations or, as pundits love to do, declare a “winner” of the trade. But it is big enough to examine the impact he’s made in his brief time as a Steeler. Let’s take a look.
Statistics aren’t always the best indicator of success or failure but they can be useful when attempting to draw broad conclusions. Here are some numbers that show the performance of the Steelers defense in the first two games of the season before Fitzpatrick arrived and in the three games since:
Of those numbers, two are particularly telling. First, the number of explosive receptions (plays of 20+ yards) has been cut in half. The defense surrendered nine pass plays of 20 or more yards in the first two weeks and has given up just seven in the three games since. Explosive plays are sometimes the result of a great schematic design or a superior receiver beating a defensive back in coverage. Often, however, they result from poor fundamentals by the safeties. This seemed to be the norm in Pittsburgh the past few seasons, as the Mike Mitchell/Sean Davis and Davis/Terrell Edmunds pairings struggled with their basic responsibilities.
The second number that jumps out is the turnover rate. Granted, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson, the quarterbacks the Steelers faced in weeks one and two, are historically far more careful with the football than Jimmy Garoppolo, Andy Dalton and Lamar Jackson, their opponents in weeks three through five. Still, the Steelers created just two turnovers in those first two games combined. Couple that with the 2018 defense, which produced 15 turnovers all season, and the Steelers generated 17 turnovers in the 18 games prior to Fitzpatrick’s arrival. That stretch included failing to create any turnovers in games quarterbacked by Dalton, Jeff Driskell, Joe Flacco and Case Keenum and just one against the likes of Tyrod Taylor, Baker Mayfield, Blake Bortles, and Derek Carr.
By contrast, with Fitzpatrick in the lineup, the current defense has already produced ten turnovers in three games. This cannot be attributed to inferior quarterback play or random coincidence. Something Fitzpatrick is doing is making the defense more effective. To better understand that something, let’s examine some of the fundamentals of the safety position where Fitzpatrick has already provided an upgrade.
For safeties, one of the primary coaching points hammered home at all levels of football is “A-B-C-D.” A-B-C-D is an acronym for “Align-Backpedal-Communicate-Drive.” These are the four things safeties must do consistently to be effective.
Alignment is the most fundamental of these duties. It is imperative that the safeties, the free safety in particular, get secondary personnel lined up properly and in the right position at the snap. Poor alignment creates gaps in a defense that well-coached offenses will exploit. If a player cannot line up correctly, it diminishes the effectiveness of the entire defense.
Take the example shown in the photos below. In the 2nd quarter of the season opener at New England, the Patriots aligned in a compressed 3x1 set to the field with a single receiver on the backside. The Steelers, in 4-2-5 personnel, lined up in cover-2. Terrell Edmunds (circled below) was at free safety with Kam Kelly the strong safety to the boundary.
Kelly’s alignment allowed him to bracket the single receiver to his side of the field but Edmunds, for some reason, lined up inside the hash to his own. He may have recognized he had help from the far corner on anything to the sideline and that slot corner Mike Hilton would carry any route up the seam. Edmunds, therefore, aligned to protect against a route to the post.
But Edmunds is too tight here. He should be on the hash, where he can react to either of the two inside receivers to the trips should they go vertical. Two steps inside might not seem like much of a misalignment but, as we shall see, it’s just enough to put Edmunds out of position.
At the snap, Edmunds compounded his alignment issue by allowing Tom Brady to move him with his eyes. Brady initially looked left to the slant from his single receiver. With Kelly and Steven Nelson bracketing the slant, Edmunds had no business moving that way. He should have backpedaled and gotten depth (the second commandment in “A-B-C-D”) instead of shuffling laterally. These false steps, coupled with his poor alignment, put him in bad position to help with the post coming from the other side of the field.
You can see in the photo below that Hilton had outside leverage on Phillip Dorsett, which indicates he was likely anticipating help from the inside. Dorsett did a nice job keeping his post “skinny,” meaning not running it towards the middle of the field into the safety. As the third photo shows, Edmunds was too far off the hash to recover and Brady threw a strike to Dorsett for the touchdown. The failure of Edmunds to defend the post was compounded by his false steps. But it began with his alignment.
Kelly, by the way, wound up in bad position too. Notice how he and Nelson are stacking each other in the third frame. Both players are over top of the slant, giving Brady an easy throw. Ideally, depending on the call, either Kelly should have come underneath to “rob” the route or Jackson should have been in a trail position on the receiver’s hip. This is a communication issue, which I will address momentarily. All things considered, the failure of the secondary to get its ABC’s (align-backpedal-communicate) down on this play resulted in a touchdown for the Patriots.
Now let’s look at the ABC’s of the secondary with Fitzpatrick on the field. Here is a 3rd down play from the 27-3 win against the Bengals two weeks ago. Cincinnati is in a 3x1 set to the field and the Steelers align to it in a two-high shell. The Bengals will run a deep hitch route to the single receiver side. To the trips, the tight end will run a shorter hitch while the slot and flanker execute a curl-wheel combo:
The safeties are aligned at about 13 yards and are each just outside the hash (the hash situation is confusing because the college hash marks from that weekend’s Pitt game, which are wider than those used in the pros, are still visible on the field). This looks like traditional cover-2 but at the snap Edmunds, the safety to the bottom of the screen, rolls down to the hook-curl area while Nelson, the corner to his side, drops to a deep third. It’s actually cover-3, whereby three deep defenders split the field in thirds and four underneath players man the flat and hook-curl zones. You can see how well the Steelers space their rotation in the image below:
Edmunds is deeper than the other underneath defenders because both receivers to his side are still pushing vertical. He will wind up driving under the curl once it breaks inside. Haden and Bud Dupree bracket the receiver to the top of the screen while Nelson and Fitzpatrick keep everything in front of them. Fitzpatrick has good depth and can protect the post. The drops of the underneath players make throwing the ball over their heads nearly impossible. Should Andy Dalton check down to his tight end, the Steelers are in good position to rally to the ball and make a tackle. This is textbook cover-3, and with the rush closing in, Dalton throws incomplete to the hitch at the top of the screen.
I’m not suggesting this one play proves the Steelers are sounder in their ABC’s with Fitzpatrick on the field. However, when you watch the All-22 film of the three games in which Fitzpatrick has played and you contrast it to the first two games, you see less receivers running wide open, less defenders bunched together in the same zone and fewer opportunities for offenses to make big plays. When you consider how important it is for the free safety to get everyone aligned properly and to communicate at the snap, it’s fair to say Fitzpatrick’s impact has been evident.
Why don’t we see more of it, then? Why isn’t Fitzpatrick jumping out on the TV screen the way a great pass rusher or linebacker does? It’s because, often, with free safeties, their impact is subtle.
I live on a barrier island. There’s a bridge into town that provides a spectacular view of the bay, the island and the ocean. When I’m coming over that bridge, I never stop to think of the concrete and steel holding me up. I simply focus on the view. What we see from a secondary once the ball is snapped is often “the view.” The work of a good free safety, though — in practice, in the film room, in his pre-snap communication — builds the foundation for it. Getting a young player like Edmunds to align two steps to his left, or players like Hilton and Nelson who haven’t worked much together to make switch calls when passing routes to each another, or making hand gestures to alert secondary players of coverage adjustments or disguises, are the subtle ways a free safety solidifies a defense. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how Fitzpatrick is doing these things. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.
Dick LeBeau was able to use Troy Polamalu in creative and unique ways because he had a free safety in Ryan Clark who could stabilize the back end and get everyone organized while Troy roamed the field like a black and gold knight. We didn’t marvel at Clark the way we did at Troy but Clark functioning like a coach on the field allowed Troy to work his magic. Fitzpatrick is doing something similar for this secondary. We don’t see or hear a ton from him but that’s the way it should be. He’s like having a good bodyguard. You know all is well when everything is quiet.
This isn’t to say Fitzpatrick hasn’t made a splash play or two in his brief time in Pittsburgh. His interception on a deflection against San Francisco was a great example of how the ‘D’ in a safety’s A-B-C-D progression is important. Driving on the football once it’s thrown is often the thing that separates good from great defensive backs or play-makers from guys who simply play the position.
In the first quarter against the 49ers, San Francisco ran a slant route on a 2nd and 11 against a Steelers blitz. The Steelers were in man coverage with Fitzpatrick as the free safety reading the eyes of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
Two things are noteworthy when watching the GIF of the play. First, the angle and speed with which Fitzpatrick drives on the ball is excellent. He drives for an impact point where, should the receiver catch the football, Fitzpatrick will be in position to knock it loose or make a sound tackle. Also, his reaction time to the deflection shows high-level athleticism. Watch how instinctively he gets his hands to the ball and how quickly he converts defense into offense. This is what a “playmaker” does: he doesn’t just get into position to create opportunities; he cashes in on them.
Recent Steeler free safeties may have either buried themselves here anticipating a big hit on the receiver (Mike Mitchell) or failed to react to the route quickly enough to get into proper position (Sean Davis). Fitzpatrick, though, is disciplined, instinctive and athletic enough to make the play.
Here’s one more. In last week’s loss to the Ravens, Fitzpatrick forced an interception with a great drive on a quick throw from Lamar Jackson to tight end Mark Andrews. It was a 3rd and 11 play with Baltimore backed up deep in their own end. Fitzpatrick, aligned at the bottom right of the screen, anticipated a quick throw, read Jackson’s eyes and drove on Andrews before Jackson released the ball. He actually got to Andrews too fast and could have been called for pass interference. The refs swallowed their whistles (who knows what constitutes PI these days) and Fitzpatrick was able to deflect the ball into the air, where Kam Kelly picked it off.
PI or not, the play demonstrated how quickly Fitzpatrick can anticipate and drive on the football. His mastery of the A-B-C-Ds of playing safety are uncommon for a player as young and inexperienced (professionally) as he is. He is much further along in his development at this stage in his career than Polamalu was. This isn’t to suggest he is on Polamalu’s level - their playing styles are contrasts, which makes comparisons relatively moot - but it does show how much he understands at this extremely early stage in his career.
This, alone, makes the Fitzpatrick trade seem worth the gamble. Edmunds is not a true free safety. Mike Mitchell wasn’t, either. Sean Davis was bounced around so much he never had a chance to get good at any single position. The beauty of having Fitzpatrick is that, for the first time since Clark’s departure, the Steelers have a true quarterback on the back end of the defense. Fitzpatrick is smart, talented and shows good leadership skills. Best of all, he’s young. At 22 years old, he’s the same age as many of the players who will be available in the draft this coming spring.
Provided the Steelers land somewhere in the 10-15 range of the 1st round, acquiring Fitzpatrick will justify forfeiting that pick. 10-15 seems a reasonable place for them to land, given how close they’ve been against some pretty good teams and with some winnable games coming up on the schedule. Could there be a player available at 10-15 who might be better than Fitzpatrick? Of course. Could there be one who can immediately solidify this team’s weakest position the way Fitzpatrick has? That’s less likely.
Either way, Fitzpatrick has already proven himself to be a valuable asset in Pittsburgh. How valuable remains to be seen. If early indications hold true, few will regret the draft capital spent to acquire him.