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Film Room: The Evolution of the 2019 Steelers secondary, Part 3: The stars emerge

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Minkah Fitzpatrick and the Steelers defense dominate the middle of the season.

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers entered the 2019 bye week with a 2-4 record, and were a very different team than the one that started the season. Ben Roethlisberger was on Injured Reserve, their big free agent WR, Donte Moncrief, had played his way off the field, JuJu Smith-Schuster was playing hurt, Ryan Switzer was relegated to returns only. Down their QB and all three of their top WRs from the start of the season, and the run game trying to run against stacked boxes with no FB, the Steelers were in trouble.

The Steelers would come out of the bye week against the Miami Dolphins and give up a turnover and two TDs in the first quarter. After that quarter, though, the Steelers defense took over. The rest of that game and the next two games would see 8 turnovers forced on 23 drives (34.7%). The defense would score two TDs, while giving up 3 TDs and 2 FGs for a 14-25 score just from the defense.

The Steelers would go 3-0 in those games, improving to a 5-4 record, putting them in position for a playoff run.

This film room is going to look more in depth at three of the Steelers defensive backs, and the traits they brought that allowed them to lead the team back into playoff contention.


Terrell Edmunds’ versatility is key

Before we get to Minkah Fitzpatrick we need to talk about his sidekick in the secondary, the Ryan Clark to Fitzpatrick’s Troy Polamalu— Terrell Edmunds.

Terrell Edmunds is a “jack of all trades, master of none” type of player, he’s not an elite defender in any specific area, but he’s good at a whole lot of things, with very few weaknesses, and his elite athleticism (97th percentile for safeties) allows him to move around a lot, even after the snap.

Week 8, 3rd quarter, 2:27 Terrell Edmunds is up by the line, dropping as the play starts.

This is something the Steelers did a good bit, starting Edmunds up near the line, and then dropping him right before the snap into deep zone.

I picked this one because it also shows how well Fitzpatrick and Edmunds were playing off each other at this point, with Edmunds dropping smoothly behind Minkah Fitzpatrick as Fitzpatrick crashes to make the tackle. That kind of movement, playing off each other starts showing up more after the bye week.

Week 8, 1st quarter, 7:44 Terrell Edmunds is the deep safety to the top of the screen.

The Steelers run a cover-6 here, with man to the wide side of the field and zone to the boundary. But this time Edmunds steps up to cover the inside while Haden defends the deep zone. As the play breaks down and Jacoby Brissett runs, Edmunds is there to meet him and limit the yards gained.

Being able to play like a LB while also being a solid deep safety, and having the athleticism to transition in play, is a huge benefit to a defense that wants to disguise what it is doing.

Terrell Edmunds was the player the Steelers moved the most at the snap, and it was a big part of how they disguised plays.

Some of you are going to disagree with me calling Edmunds a solid deep safety. Edmunds has a reputation for being terrible at deep zone, and while I will state it is not his best usage, he’s not necessarily bad at it.

Week 10, 4th quarter, 1:30. Terrell Edmunds is the deep safety to the bottom of the screen.

Josh Reynolds beats Joe Haden deep, but Edmunds breaks up the pass to prevent a TD.

Here’s a better angle of the breakup.

Terrell Edmunds has the athleticism to play trail like this, and he does a solid job reading the receiver and getting his hands in the way of the catch.

Edmunds is not good at reading the ball in the air, not prohibitively bad, but it is a weakness. You see it when he mistimes contact with a receiver, and when he goes for interceptions. He’s much better covering the WR and playing their hands/eyes.

His strong man-cover skills are a big asset when you pair it with his size and strength.

Week 9, 4th quarter, 8:43. Terrell Edmunds is the slot DB to the bottom of the screen.

After scoring the go ahead touchdown, the Colts go for two, hoping to extend their lead to three points. Jack Doyle gets a good push on Edmunds and you can see Edmunds stumble, but he recovers and is able to knock the pass away to preserve the one-point game. The Steelers would win the game 26-24, so keeping those two points off the board was incredibly important in the Steelers’ win.

Terrell Edmunds isn’t a star, and may never be one, but his value to the Steelers as a guy who can play anywhere on the field and take on any responsibility you can give him makes him a perfect piece for a defense that wants to disguise what they are doing, and the perfect compliment for a play maker like Minkah Fitzpatrick.


Minkah Fitzpatrick is a super star

In the second part of this film series I showed how Minkah Fitzpatrick was less of a play maker when he was the deepest defender in coverage. That’s because teams would throw underneath him, teams didn’t throw near him when he was the deep safety very often.

Week 8, 3rd quarter, 11:14. Minkah Fitzpatrick is the deep safety.

Ryan Fitzpatrick is one of those quarterbacks who is going to chuck an ill-advised deep ball a couple times a game. This time he throws at Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Minkah plays center field beautifully for the interception.

Note Terrell Edmunds’ closing speed to the ball. If Minkah isn’t there, Edmunds would have been there to break up the pass, but the odds of an interception would be a lot lower.

Week 9, 2nd quarter, 2:36. Minkah Fitzpatrick is the deep safety.

This is Fitzpatrick’s pick-6 against the Colts. Minkah Fitzpatrick makes it look easy, but this is an incredible play.

Here’s a look right before the QB starts to throw the ball.

The yellow arrow is pointing to where the pass will go. Jack Doyle is passing Mike Hilton, the WR outside will keep Haden occupied, and Minkah Fitzpatrick is 9-10 yards away from the spot he needs to be to make a play on the ball.

Joe Haden stated he thought he had given up a TD because he didn’t get the ball when he lunged at Doyle in the end zone. Minkah Fitzpatrick shouldn’t have been able to get there.

Watch Minkah Fitzpatrick at the top of the screen, look at his feet and the moment he breaks on the ball.

He reads the pass incredibly fast, moving before the throw, and bursts toward the ball. Fitzpatrick has elite read and react speed, his footwork is efficient and he explodes to the play.

He would show off his play reading the next week in an even better, but nowhere near as impactful play.

Week 10, 3rd quarter, 0:19. Minkah Fitzpatrick is the deep safety to the top of the screen.

This whole play is designed to get Cooper Kupp open underneath for some easy yards. But Minkah Fitzpatrick comes from the other side of the field, navigating traffic to break up the catch.

This play is Troy-esque. He sees the play almost instantly and flies to where the ball will end up.

The bye week gave the Steelers time to get Minkah Fitzpatrick better integrated into the defense, and the result was 4 interceptions, 5 passes defended and a fumble recovery in the next three games, with 2 touchdowns.

Starting in Cleveland in Week 11, opponents would avoid Minkah Fitzpatrick. His stats disappeared, but for those three weeks Minkah Fitzpatrick dominated the stat sheets.


Joe Haden’s renaissance

Through 8 games and 28 minutes of the 2019 season, Joe Haden had four passes defended and 0 interceptions. The Steelers opponents had been targeting Steven Nelson a lot, attacking him with a lot of underneath and in-cutting routes. Minkah Fitzpatrick jumping those in-cutting routes led teams to target Joe Haden more, averaging three more targets per game in weeks 8-13 than in weeks 3-6.

In Week 10 Joe Haden would start making them pay for it.

Week 10, 2nd quarter, 1:44. Joe Haden is the CB to the bottom of the screen.

This is Haden’s 5th pass defended of the season. He would get 4 more in this game, including 2 turnover plays.

Week 10, 3rd quarter, 13:34. Joe Haden is the CB to the top of the screen.

When Minkah Fitzpatrick steps up to cover the in-route, Devin Bush has to to defend a deep route with no safety help. But Joe Haden and Minkah Fitzpatrick have switched here, and Haden is there to make the interception.

Week 10, 4th quarter, 0:30. Joe Haden is the CB to the bottom of the screen.

Here Haden tips the pass and Minkah Fitzpatrick comes away with the football.

If you watch Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick on this play, you can see Edmunds playing forward with Fitzpatrick deep to start before they switch. The quarterback is looking to Edmunds side, and when he turns to target Fitzpatrick’s side, Edmunds steps back to cover deep as Minkah steps forward, ready to attack the play. Also notice Minkah Fitzpatrick’s positioning as he comes forward. Fitzpatrick is a fluid mover who reads the flow of the offense at an incredibly high level. It pays off with an interception off the tipped ball on this play.

This was Minkah Fitzpatrick’s last interception of the 2019 season. Minkah came into the game with 4 interceptions and picked up his 5th. Joe Haden came into the game with 0 interceptions and picked up his first, as he would end the season with 5.

The communication between the safeties behind Haden allowed him to be far more aggressive than he has at any time with the Steelers, and Haden would record 5 interceptions and 13 passes defended in the second half of the season.


The takeaway

The Steelers recorded 20 interceptions in 2019. The last two seasons with 20+ interceptions were 2010 and 2008.

The Steelers got 10 of those interceptions from Joe Haden and Minkah Fitzpatrick, while Steven Nelson and Terrell Edmunds combined for 1. But while Haden and Fitzpatrick collected the stats, Nelson and Edmunds played important roles in setting the stage for those interceptions. Nelson’s deep coverage and ability to lock down deep routes 1v1 and Edmunds’ versatility allowed the Steelers to do a lot of different things on defense while putting Joe Haden and Minkah Fitzpatrick in position to play to their strengths and make the splash plays.

Next up in this film room series we’ll look at both Cleveland games as well as the second Cincinnati game, in the penultimate article on the evolution of the Steelers secondary in 2019.