There are a number of takeaways Steelers fans can have from the team’s 8–8 season in 2019. Of course one could choose to focus on the negative, but with everything that is 2020 I don’t know that anyone needs more negativity in their life. Instead, the 2019 season truly brought about the reemergence of the Steelers defense.
It’s not breaking news to anyone, but the final piece to the defense which came in and caused an immediate impact was the acquisition of Minkah Fitzpatrick before the Steelers Week 3 matchup in San Francisco. While some fans were infuriated at the time that the Steelers would give up their first-round pick in the 2020 draft, the All-Pro performance by Fitzpatrick erased those concerns.
But looking at 2020, Minkah Fitzpatrick will now have the offseason with the Steelers to better prepare for what lies ahead. Granted, the cancellation of OTA’s along with the anything-but-normal training camp teams are currently moving through, it is not the typical preparation period when it comes to all NFL teams.
Throughout the offseason, Minkah Fitzpatrick had been quite vocal about wanting to expand his usage in the Steelers defense. Although it was cited Fitzpatrick was not satisfied in Miami with the number of different positions where they were having him play, being moved around on Pittsburgh’s defense in 2020 is something Fitzpatrick has said he desired. There is a difference between “moving around” and “different positions” which seem to escape some talking heads. But in a virtual press conference with Pittsburgh media on Monday, Steelers defensive backs coach Tom Bradley made the statement that the Steelers are not planning on moving make a Fitzpatrick around the secondary and instead will keep him at free safety according to Teresa Varley of Steelers.com.
Bradley added that Fitzpatrick does a great job playing 'centerfield' for the defense and while they can move him in certain situations, the goal is keeping him set there.— Teresa Varley (@Teresa_Varley) August 24, 2020
During the second half of the 2019 season in which Fitzpatrick was in Pittsburgh, his number of interceptions and passes defensed saw a huge drop (0 INT’s and 1 PD in the final 7 games). Simply put, defenses were avoiding Fitzpatrick at all costs.
Why would teams go to such great lengths to avoid Fitzpatrick? It’s really quite simple. Even the Steelers receivers understand what Fitzpatrick does in the middle of the field. Another player interviewed on Monday was Steelers wide receiver James Washington who talked about how things are different with Fitzpatrick at free safety during practice according to ESPN’s Booke Pryor.
James Washington says running a route with Minkah Fitzpatrick at center field makes it "a little more challenging... you definitely have to be cognizant of where he is."— Brooke Pryor (@bepryor) August 24, 2020
So what are the Steelers to do with Fitzpatrick in 2020? Do they leave him playing centerfield and just take away that option from their opponents? Or do the Steelers use Fitzpatrick in a different way where his big-play ability can become more of a factor? With limited access to any information coming out of Steelers training camp, it probably will not be until the Steelers take the field in Week 1 on September 14 until we can truly get a glimpse as to how Fitzpatrick could be utilized. But in yet another interview from Monday, Minkah Fitzpatrick has seemed to back off of his stance of moving around within the defense.
Minkah Fitzpatrick talking to the media via zoom said he doesn't see himself moving around a lot in the defense. He said they were successful in what they did last year and he doesn't see his role changing much.— Teresa Varley (@Teresa_Varley) August 24, 2020
So why the sudden change from Fitzpatrick? Was it getting back in camp and seeing the plans the Steelers had? Or is it like so much of the coverage coming out of Steelers training camp, the last thing they want to do is tip their hand? Fitzpatrick’s reasoning was quite simple.
Minkah Fitzpatrick on keeping it simple on why he is okay with not being moved around in the defensive backfield and sticking with what they did last year:— Teresa Varley (@Teresa_Varley) August 24, 2020
'Because it worked last year.'
And then he added:
'I was okay with All-Pro and Pro Bowl.'
It could be Fitzpatrick is in a very difficult situation. The Steelers have the option to simply deploy their superstar in a way to take away part of their opponents passing attack. But in doing so, Fitzpatrick could see statistics much like the final seven games of 2019.
At least for now, Minkah seems content with how the Steelers say they are deploying their defense for 2020. But much like how things finished up in 2019, Fitzpatrick will be ready for an expanded role if he feels there is a need.
Minkah Fitzpatrick says he'll ask for expanded responsibilities if he sees a need. right now, he says, he doesn't seen a need.— Brooke Pryor (@bepryor) August 24, 2020
Regardless of how the Steelers use Fitzpatrick in 2020, it is the overall success which is ultimately the driving factor. When it comes to what the defense plans on doing in 2020, Fitzpatrick believes their ability to take the ball away and gets to the quarterback will continue and improve for this coming year.
Minkah Fitzpatrick said the defense still wants to create turnovers, have as many sacks, even if the offense is at full strength this year. He said that doesn't change things for them. They want to do the same things, even better.— Teresa Varley (@Teresa_Varley) August 24, 2020
There is a variety of ways the Steelers can look to utilize their strengths on defense in 2020. Perhaps Minkah Fitzpatrick will be moving around the Steelers’ secondary while still staying in the role of free safety in order to help produce turnovers. Perhaps the Steelers will apply the strategy of taking away options in the secondary to make the quarterback hold the ball just a fraction longer in order to increase the opportunity for sacks. Perhaps there is even more options which the Steelers have which can vary from week-to-week and even play-to-play.
The most important thing for the 2020 Steelers defense is for them to continue to make big plays regardless of the number on the jersey who is credited with the individual statistic.