Wait, don’t skip to the comments to tell me the Steelers traded the 18th pick in the 2020 draft, I already know that.
But that was the pick with Minkah Fitzpatrick playing 14 games for the Pittsburgh Steelers, a span of games where the Steelers went 8-6. What is their record in those games if they don’t have Minkah? Fortunately we don’t know, and will never have to watch those games, those awful, soul sucking games that would have been.
To start looking back at those hypothetical games, I want to go back to an article I wrote right after the trade, “Are Mason Rudolph and Minkah Fitzpatrick really the answer for the Pittsburgh Steelers?”
In that article I talked about the difference between the Steelers defense with a healthy Sean Davis, and the defense without a healthy Sean Davis While short sample size caveats abounded in that article, the conclusion was that to salvage the season, the Steelers needed Mason Rudolph to be a competent, league average QB, and Minkah Fitzpatrick to help the defense play at the level they did with Sean Davis.
Mason Rudolph was not far off from an average NFL QB for a good number of his starts, and Minkah Fitzpatrick was the best safety in the NFL, and turned the Steelers defense into one of the best in the league almost overnight.
But how many wins did Minkah Fitzpatrick bring to the Steelers? I’ve heard people claim 3 wins, and do so as if it was a ridiculous number, but true because Minkah was that good.
But that number is too low.
With Sean Davis hurt or out in the first two weeks, the Steelers gave up 54 points on 15 drives, but only 7 points on 7 drives with Davis healthy. Again the short sample size cannot be stressed enough.
The main problem? With Davis out the free safety position fell to either Terrell Edmunds or Kam Kelly. Edmunds is a fine strong safety with a real weakness in deep zone coverage. Kameron Kelly is a decent box safety who can cover slower slot players at a competent level. That’s being kind, Kelly was awful, especially in deep zone coverage.
The Steelers, with that safety tandem, were handing out big plays like free candy. And worse, DBs like Joe Haden and Mike Hilton were getting exposed in their own weaknesses in carrying receivers deep. When Fitzpatrick brought his “Fitzmagic” act to Pittsburgh, Haden and Hilton were able to be more aggressive and not worry about giving up big plays. And it paid off.
In a hypothetical 2019 without trading for Minkah Fitzpatrick, Haden isn’t grabbing 5 picks, he’s likely viewed as a problem by Steeler fans, and Hilton would have been targeted even more.
That’s the on field impact, but what about stats?
With Minkah Fitzpatrick the Steelers held teams to 74.5% of their season points per offensive drive. In the two games before that they gave up 139.0% of expected points. That’s an enormous swing, and remember, it is already adjusted to the opponent faced. So in this hypothetical, the Steelers probably replace Sean Davis with a free agent off the street, or trade for another team’s backup, and lets say that goes well. Let’s say the Steelers with Safety X hold teams to 100% of their usual points per drive, just give up what the opposing offense did in other games.
In that situation the Steelers would have given up 83 more points from week 3 on than they did, an average of 6 more points allowed per game. Again, that’s assuming the Steelers are league average with a safety they sign off the street starting and having to anchor deep zone coverage.
Then consider the turnovers that aren’t being forced. The Steelers aren’t getting a pick 6 from Minkah, and they aren’t getting as many interceptions from Joe Haden, who had 3 in his first two seasons with the Steelers. If you give Haden 2 and say the safety the Steelers sign to play FS gets 2 as well, that’s six interceptions that don’t happen. That affects the offensive scoring and would probably mean more points allowed as well.
So how do we apply this to wins and losses? Let’s start with point differential, if you just add 83 points allowed, the Steelers go from -14 point differential to -97 which absolutely guarantees Tomlin’s first losing season. That’s tied for 7th worst in the league. But we are going to go farther than that.
Let’s look at each 1 score win the Steelers had in 2019.
Week 6, Chargers: With Steven Nelson and Mark Barron out, the Steelers hold one of the top deep passing teams in the NFL down until Haden also leaves the game and your starting CBs are Artie Burns and Cameron Sutton. Does anyone believe we win this game without Minkah Fitzpatrick locking down the deep zone?
Week 9, Colts: Minkah Fitzpatrick 96 yard INT return for a TD in a 2 point win. . . that’s a loss without Fitzpatrick.
Week 10, LA Rams: Fitzpatrick with a fumble return for a TD and a game sealing INT in a 5 point win. Another loss there.
Week 12, Bengals: It gets tougher now, as teams are avoiding Fitzpatrick. Haden and Hilton have 3 passes defended each, and a Minkah Fitzpatrick 36 yard fumble return gives the Steelers field advantage for the last 3 drives of the game. The Steelers held the Bengals to 50% of their per-drive average scoring and 66% of their usual yards per drive. This one is closer, but I am still calling this a loss without Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Week 13, Browns: A 7 point Steeler win and one where the offense actually did something. the only turnovers were a strip sack and a Haden INT. If the Steelers give up the Browns average points per drive the game would have been 20-20 and gone to overtime, so while we counted the Bengals a loss, we’ll give the Steelers a win here, still avenging the nightmare from 2 weeks earlier.
Week 14 Cardinals: This 6 point win is a loss without Fitzpatrick. his goal line stop of a Kyler Murray scramble took 4 points off the board, and Joe Haden gave credit to the guys behind him allowing him to be aggressive and get his 2 INTs in this game. Without Minkah Fitzpatrick, Haden isn’t taking those gambles and, seriously, they avoided throwing within 15 yards of Minkah Fitzpatrick in that game. That’s a major impact even if Fitzpatrick’s stats are mostly blank because of it.
I’m giving the Steelers only 1 of 6 one score wins without Minkah Fitzpatrick, and a 3-13 final record in 2019. Strength of schedule would cost the Steelers in a three way tie with Cincinnati (who gained a win in this exercise) and Washington, giving the Steelers the #3 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
And I’d still take Minkah Fitzpatrick. He’s only a month older than Joe Burrows, and in our scenario, the Steelers are desperate for safety help, and there’s no one in this class that could make a bigger impact on the Pittsburgh Steelers than Minkah Fitzpatrick already has.
Who do you think the Minkah Fitzpatrick-less Steelers would have taken in the 2020 draft with the #3 pick, and would you rather have that pick than Minkah Fitzpatrick?