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2021 Pittsburgh Steelers Roster Outlook: The Safeties

The Steelers have Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds together for a third season, but beyond that?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The Steelers safety room underwent a dramatic change in the 2019 season. When Sean Davis went down the team did not have a free safety that could slow down opponent’s deep passing attacks and it showed up dramatically in stats and film, as the Steelers in 2019 allowed 7 points on seven drives to the Seattle Seahawks with Davis healthy, and in the rest of their drives the first two weeks of 2019, gave up 54 points on 15 drives with Kam Kelly and Terrell Edmunds trying to play free safety.

Minkah Fitzpatrick changed everything, including the scheme, which changed to fit his unique skillset.

The Starters

Minkah Fitzpatrick: Minkah Fitzpatrick entered the 2018 NFL draft as a playmaker without a true position. In Nick Saban’s defense at Alabama Minkah Fitzpatrick played the Star position (the 5th DB as a strong side LB, think Mike Hilton but with even more like a linebacker), moved to safety due to injury, played outside corner and more of the Star position.

His versatility had him projected as an outside corner that could move into the slot, a small linebacker and a strong safety. I haven’t seen anyone who projected Fitzpatrick to be a star free safety. But the Steelers had a huge need there, and Fitzpatrick filled it. But Fitzpatrick isn’t a true cover-1 free safety like Sean Davis was. The Steelers ran more and more Nick Saban defensive concepts in 2019, likely to let Fitzpatrick be comfortable playing a position he had only played a little in college, and it paid off. Minkah Fitzpatrick is easily a top 10 safety in the NFL, but he is still a unique player, and the Steelers shape their secondary around him.

Terrell Edmunds: Edmunds was drafted in 2018 to play strong safety in front of Sean Davis. Edmunds was an incredible athlete with impressive sideline to sideline speed, as well as a solid tackler and he was good in man coverage, able to shut down running backs and tight ends and handle covering even the best wide receivers at an acceptable level.

He was a perfect fit for a defense whose leading tackler was it’s free safety, who played deep zone almost exclusively. In his rookie season Edmunds finished #2 in tackles to Sean Davis, as the inside linebacker struggles put incredible pressure on the safeties. While Davis still led the team in tackles, his 71 solo tackles from 2017 dropped to 59 in 2018. In 2019 Terrell Edmunds was again 2nd in tackles, but this time behind linebacker Devin Bush, and Minkah Fitzpatrick came in 9th with 36 solo tackles.

Terrell Edmunds was drafted because he could play like an extra linebacker in the box, while being a great man cover option on tight ends and running backs, and be the player the Steelers switch with a linebacker to erase wide receiver/linebacker mismatches.

He has done that job very well. But since Sean Davis went down in 2019 he’s had to fill other roles as well, playing deep zone more, something he was not ready to do in 2019. In 2020 the Steelers needed to move Minkah Fitzpatrick around more as teams worked to avoid him, and Terrell Edmunds was asked to fill a wide variety of roles to enable that. Terrell Edmunds’ job isn’t to be a playmaker, he’s the guy who lets playmakers make plays by covering what they don’t.

Minkah Fitzpatrick isn’t Troy Polamalu, and Terrell Edmunds isn’t Ryan Clark, but Clark and Edmunds both derive their value as the players that let their all-pro partner in the backfield move around and create havoc for the opposing offense.

The Depth

Antione Brooks Jr.: Drafted in 2020, Brooks Jr. was a safety/linebacker hybrid in college, playing an even more aggressive version of the Star position Fitzpatrick played at Alabama. From the beginning that set him up to be a special teams player, while his value on defense was questionable, even with his impressive college stats: 27.5 tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks and 4 interceptions in 36 games as a starter.

Brooks was only active for 4 games, and only played 10 special teams snaps, but he did play 28 snaps in week 10 against Cincinnati with Mike Hilton out and the Steelers playing a season high amount of dime defense against Joe Burrow. Antoine Brooks Jr. best fits Mike HIlton’s slot linebacker role, more the blitzing and run defense than the coverage though, as so far in his football career he isn’t strong in coverage at all.

Brooks Jr. shows promise to me, and could bring to dime back what Mike Hilton brought to nickel if he gets his coverage up to snuff. Brooks Jr. is another player with a non-traditional skill set on the Steelers defense, and it will be interesting to see if he can carve out a niche on the team with that skillset.

John Battle: Undrafted out of LSU in 2019, Battle showed good zone coverage, and ability to man cover tight ends and running backs in college, played some in the slot and was not good in a cover-1 role. . . Sound familiar? Battle is a bottom of the roster depth piece still, but he again shows the Steelers tendency to take safeties that don’t fit their cover-1 heavy scheme, but show ability to play in the slot and play deep zone when they aren’t the only one back there. It’s more than a trend at this point, it’s a blueprint.

Like most of the positions on the Steelers defense, the main starters are in place, but there isn’t much depth behind them. The good news is it is far easier to find and sign depth players than it is to find top notch starters. But depth players in the NFL are one snap away from being starters, as the Steelers found out with Kam Kelly in 2019.

Free Agency Options

I’d love to throw out some names of true cover-1 free safeties that would let the Steelers move Minkah Fitzpatrick around without putting Terrell Edmunds in his worst usage, but frankly, the Steelers aren’t going to do it. They have a vision of the safeties they want and they are remarkably consistent in picking up those players.

In free agency I do not expect a signing to play significant snaps on defense, The Steelers already cut Terrell Edmunds snaps to get Mike HIlton on the field more in 2020, and statistically it wasn’t a good move, with those sets giving up more running yards and doing no better against the pass. So for potential signings I’ll keep it cheap and Steelers related:

Jordan Dangerfield: Dangerfield was the Special Teams captain and he anchored the special teams with his solid and smart play. The Steelers could go with Antoine Brooks Jr. in his spot and let Derek Watt take over the captain title for special teams, so we’ll see. Dangerfield played 20 defensive snaps while leading the team with almost 65% of ST snaps played, he recorded 10 tackles and did not give up a reception.

Sean Davis: Davis was not the same player in 2020 that he was before his injury in 2019. If the Steelers think he was still hampered by the injury and that he will be better in 2021 then he makes a lot of sense as a #3 safety, as Davis can play both free safety and strong safety, which would allow the Steelers to use the starters even more versatilely with three safety sets that could also cover snaps for the cornerback depth that are also free agents.

Draft Options: I talked about Jevon Holland and Ar’Darius Washington in the cornerback roster outlook. They are both technically safeties, and they fit the Steelers pattern of picking up players that are safety/slot hybrids.

Ar’Darius Washington also has the added bonus of having played across from Trevon Meohrig at TCU who played a lot of different roles, and thus Washington also played a lot of different roles as his partner in the secondary. If he falls (again, he’s 5’8”) he’d be my dream pick as a player that could line up literally anywhere in the defensive backfield, playing everything from deep zone to blitzing slot at a high level.

Paris Ford: It’s highly unlikely to happen, but I’d love the safety out of Pitt in the second round, a true free safety who can cover WRs as well, he’d fill the role of my dream addition to the secondary as a cover-1 safety and slot corner that would let the Steelers go crazy with three safety sets and make it very hard for defenses to know what Minkah Fitzpatrick’s role was going to be on any given snap.

Talanoa Hufanga: Like Antoine Brooks Jr., he’s an outside linebacker in a safety’s body, but he also looks to be a high end athlete. He’s also not a coverage guy. He’d be a special teams player with upside due to his athleticism, but he doesn’t have the agility Terrell Edmunds has to be a good man coverage player. But he’s a playmaker in the box out of USC. . . aren’t we required to at least hype him coming to the Steelers?