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What about the Steelers Veterans? Part 2: Safeties

What can last year’s defensive performances teach about the upcoming year.

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

This is part 2 of a four part series, looking at the Steelers defensive performances from last year at several different points — after the season’s first ten games (in which the Steelers were 10-0 and their defense was dominant), in the final six weeks (during which the team fell to 2-4), and over the full season.

I compiled some individual stats during the extended postponement of the Thanksgiving contest against Baltimore. Instead of trying to make sense of mid-season numbers, I looked at league rankings (using profootballreference.com as a guide). Then I did a little number crunching of my own and broke the lists down by conference and position.

Part 1 can be found HERE. Soon will come analyses of cornerbacks and pass rushers. But in this edition: Safeties.


This round: Safeties

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

First, a quick peak at the overall stats allowed by the Steelers safeties.

Games 1-10

Player Tm Age G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp% Yds TD Int Rat YAC comb MTkl
Player Tm Age G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp% Yds TD Int Rat YAC comb MTkl
Minkah Fitzpatrick PIT 24 10 10 12 19 63.20% 211 1 4 78.9 90 32 6
Terrell Edmunds PIT 23 10 8 19 34 55.90% 251 0 2 54.9 40 23 1
Most categories are self explanatory. “Rat.” refers to the passer rating this defender allowed when he was targeted. “YAC” is the yardage allowed after the catch. “Cmb Tkl” is the player’s combined tackles (both solo and assists). And “MTkl” means missed tackles, as measured by Pro Football Reference.

Games 11-16

Player Tm Age G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp% Yds TD Int Rat YAC comb MTkl
Player Tm Age G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp% Yds TD Int Rat YAC comb MTkl
Minkah Fitzpatrick PIT 24 6 6 1 7 14.30% 13 1 0 69.3 0 15 5
Terrell Edmunds PIT 23 5 4 6 11 54.50% 111 1 0 119.9 74 21 5

Full Season

Player Tm Age G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp% Yds TD Int Rat YAC comb MTkl
Player Tm Age G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp% Yds TD Int Rat YAC comb MTkl
Minkah Fitzpatrick PIT 24 16 16 13 26 50.00% 224 2 4 54.9 90 47 11
Terrell Edmunds PIT 23 15 12 25 45 55.60% 362 1 2 70.8 114 44 6

Just like with the previous essay, we’re about to break these stats down a bit, but on a first glance we can say that this is a pretty good safety pair. Moreover, you may have noticed that it’s a very young duo. That ought to bode well for this secondary. The Steelers recently picked up Minkah Fitzpatrick’s fifth year option, but declined Terrell Edmunds’. I don’t think there’s much room for debate about which player is better (Fitzpatrick has been an All Pro in both his years with the Steelers), but I wanted to know why Edmunds is expendable, and what might be lost if/when he leaves. Let’s go.


Completion Percentage Allowed

Pittsburgh Steelers v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Safeties cover all over the field — they take outlet running backs, tight ends up the seam, deep field burners, and seven yard crosses. A great pass defense must have great safeties.

Games 1-10

NFL all AFC all NFL sfty AFC sfty All defenders G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp%
NFL all AFC all NFL sfty AFC sfty All defenders G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp%
87 46 24 10 Minkah Fitzpatrick 10 10 12 19 63.2%
32 19 12 5 Terrell Edmunds 10 8 19 34 55.9%
The rankings were all calculated by me, from Pro Football Reference data. In some cases, the player was tied for a certain ranking, though I didn’t indicate that here.

The first thing I notice in this data set: the Steelers safeties were very good at breaking up passes, and (surprisingly) Edmunds was noticeably stronger. Despite being targeted nearly twice as often, Edmunds allowed 7.3% fewer completions.

Both Edmunds and Fitzpatrick were among the top 10 AFC safeties for completion percentage allowed during this opening stretch.

Games 11-16

NFL all AFC all NFL sfty AFC sfty All defenders G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp%
NFL all AFC all NFL sfty AFC sfty All defenders G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp%
- - - - Minkah Fitzpatrick 6 6 1 7 14.3%
- - - - Terrell Edmunds 5 4 6 11 54.5%
I could isolate the numbers from games 11-16, but there was no way to determine league rankings during that stretch.

While the ILBs declined in the final six games (across almost every category), the safeties appear to have gotten stronger as the season wore along. Edmunds was impressively steady (especially knowing how strong his numbers were in the season’s first three months), but Fitzpatrick got his groove on during this stretch. 14.3% is no joke. Goodness.

Full Season

NFL all AFC all NFL sfty AFC sfty All defenders G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp%
NFL all AFC all NFL sfty AFC sfty All defenders G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp%
5 4 2 1 Minkah Fitzpatrick 16 16 13 26 50.0%
23 15 4 3 Terrell Edmunds 15 12 25 45 55.6%

This is a very impressive pair. When two of the top four safeties in the NFL are in the same secondary, you’ve got yourself a first-rate defense. Moreover, these two are both in the top 25 in this category among all players in the entire league. I’m not sure I expected this level of dominance.


Passer Rating Allowed

Pittsburgh Steelers v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

Games 1-10

NFL all AFC all NFL sfty AFC sfty All defenders G GS Tgt Rat
NFL all AFC all NFL sfty AFC sfty All defenders G GS Tgt Rat
54 26 15 8 Minkah Fitzpatrick 10 10 19 78.9
11 9 4 3 Terrell Edmunds 10 8 34 54.9

Again, these guys look very strong. And again, Terrell Edmunds is shockingly good.

I liked Edmunds this year — I thought it was his best year by a mile, and I found that I rarely saw him make a mistake (not that I was watching for him specifically, but he rarely seemed to be trailing a play badly or taking a terrible angle). But it turns out he was much better than advertised.

No wonder these guys were 10-0.

Games 11-16

NFL all AFC all NFL sfty AFC sfty All defenders G GS Tgt Rat
NFL all AFC all NFL sfty AFC sfty All defenders G GS Tgt Rat
- - - - Minkah Fitzpatrick 5 2 7 69.3
- - - - Terrell Edmunds 6 8 11 119.9

This stretch of games gets a little more complicated. As we just saw, Fitzpatrick’s completion percentage disappeared, but he also stopped getting interceptions (which explains how his QBR only dropped 10 points). It seems that opponents generally avoided passing in his direction all year.

Edmunds’ home-stretch slump has a more complex answer, which I’ll get to in a moment. It essentially comes down to one game (see below).

Full Season

NFL all AFC all NFL sfty AFC sfty All defenders G GS Tgt Rat
NFL all AFC all NFL sfty AFC sfty All defenders G GS Tgt Rat
15 10 4 3 Minkah Fitzpatrick 16 16 26 65.7
22 13 7 5 Terrell Edmunds 15 12 45 70.8

When looked at en toto, this is one hell of a unit. Once again, both players were among the top 25 players in the NFL at any position, and both men were among the top 5 safeties in the AFC. This is quite possibly the best safety duo in football.


Now, about that Terrell Edmunds thing.

I said a moment ago that Edmunds’ statistical collapse boils down to one bad game. The game in question was the (supposed to be) Thanksgiving matchup against the Baltimore Ravens — the contest that kept being pushed back, and in which Bud Dupree was lost for the year.

Here is Edmunds’ stat line, with the Ravens game isolated:

Edmunds vs Baltimore

Terrell Edmunds cmp att cmp% yds YPA TD Int Rtg. yac Ypa tckle mtkl mtk/att
Terrell Edmunds cmp att cmp% yds YPA TD Int Rtg. yac Ypa tckle mtkl mtk/att
Full 16 game stats 25 45 55.6 362 8.04 1 2 70.8 114 2.5 68 6 8.1%
Wk 11 vs Ravens 5 6 83.3 107 17.83 1 0 158.3 66 11.0 7 3 30.0%
Remaining 15 wks 20 39 51.3 255 6.54 0 2 50.7 48 1.2 61 3 4.7%

Do you see it? Wow.

Now, Edmunds had a generally bad game against the Ravens, but this is complicated even further by one play.

Sorry to make everyone relive that moment. But what it represented was 70 yards given up, including 55 yards after the catch, and a touchdown. That’s 63% of the yardage he yielded in the final six games, and the only score. Edmunds gave up only one single completion in the five weeks that followed this godawful game.

Without this game, Edmunds would have finished the season third in the NFL in passer rating allowed, and the top safety in football.

(Side note: the player he’d have knocked from 3rd to 4th in that scenario? Robert Spillane...)


Yards After Catch (YAC) Allowed

NFL: DEC 29 Steelers at Ravens Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As long as we’re talking about tackling the catch...

Games 1-10

NFL all AFC all NFL sfty AFC sfty All defenders G GS Tgt YAC /Tgt
NFL all AFC all NFL sfty AFC sfty All defenders G GS Tgt YAC /Tgt
216 79 55 26 Minkah Fitzpatrick 10 10 19 90 4.7
5 5 2 2 Terrell Edmunds 10 8 34 40 1.2

Goodness. What?

I don’t have a particular moment to point to for Minkah Fitzpatrick’s strangely mediocre numbers here, but I’m really shocked by how much stronger Edmunds is in this category than Fitzpatrick. My initial guess was that these guys were really hurt by all those mid-range passes and blown plays against Philadelphia (remember that week? When the Eagles converted 10-14 third downs?). Maybe Minkah was the guy who was burned on most of them?

Games 11-16

NFL all AFC all NFL sfty AFC sfty All defenders G GS Tgt YAC /Tgt
NFL all AFC all NFL sfty AFC sfty All defenders G GS Tgt YAC /Tgt
- - - - Minkah Fitzpatrick 6 6 7 0 0
- - - - Terrell Edmunds 5 4 11 74 6.7

So anyway — whatever wasn’t working for Fitzpatrick in the first 10 weeks was apparently fixed. ZERO yards after the catch? Over six weeks? Ridiculous.

Edmunds, meanwhile, stumbles badly in this closing stretch, but don’t forget about that Baltimore game. Edmunds yielded 55 yards in YAC on one play. Without that one blown coverage, he’d have given up 19 yards total in the last six weeks, or 1.9 per target. And that’s not so bad either.

Full Season

NFL all AFC all NFL sfty AFC sfty All defenders G GS Tgt YAC /Tgt
NFL all AFC all NFL sfty AFC sfty All defenders G GS Tgt YAC /Tgt
173 83 45 20 Minkah Fitzpatrick 16 16 26 90 3.5
62 31 15 9 Terrell Edmunds 15 12 45 114 2.5

Not as dominant as other categories, but this is still pretty good — especially considering the couple of stumbles along the way.


Interceptions per Target

Pittsburgh Steelers v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Games 1-10

NFL all AFC all NFL sfty AFC sfty Player G GS Tgt Int /Tgt
NFL all AFC all NFL sfty AFC sfty Player G GS Tgt Int /Tgt
1 1 1 1 Minkah Fitzpatrick 10 10 19 4 21.1%
29 10 12 6 Terrell Edmunds 10 8 34 2 5.9%

And with this category, we suddenly see why opponents threw away from Minkah Fitzpatrick so often: because when they threw in his direction, he caught it more often than any other defender in football.

Edmunds, again, looks respectable here, but I’m going to have to throw some cold water on that. Both of his interceptions came in the same game, against Jacksonville and their overwhelmed quarterback whose name I’ll bet most of you don’t even remember (it’s Jake Luton). Without that contest, he had no interceptions all season.

If I’m going to give him benefit of the doubt for one bad day against Baltimore (against an otherwise solid season), I’m also going to have to point out one good day against the Jags (against an otherwise empty basket).

Games 11-16

NFL all AFC all NFL sfty AFC sfty Player G GS Tgt Int /Tgt
NFL all AFC all NFL sfty AFC sfty Player G GS Tgt Int /Tgt
- - - - Minkah Fitzpatrick 6 6 7 0 0.00%
- - - - Terrell Edmunds 5 4 11 0 0.00%

Not much to say here, except that the lack of late-season turnovers couldn’t have helped this team. As I pointed out with the ILBs in the previous article, Bud Dupree’s season ending injury against the Ravens may have contributed to this — less pressure on the quarterback means fewer off-target passes.

Full Season

NFL all AFC all NFL sfty AFC sfty Player G GS Tgt Int /Tgt
NFL all AFC all NFL sfty AFC sfty Player G GS Tgt Int /Tgt
5 3 5 3 Minkah Fitzpatrick 16 16 26 4 15.40%
58 32 30 16 Terrell Edmunds 15 12 45 2 4.40%

At the end of the day, Minkah Fitzpatrick was one of the best players in football at snagging interceptions. There was buzz early in the season about what had happened to him, when it took several weeks for him to start making the kinds of splash plays he’s known for. Obviously, that complaint was not without merit (considering some of his other early-season stats), but Fitzpatrick isn’t a two-time All Pro for nothing.

One wonders whether Edmunds would be a Pro Bowler as well (or at least, whether his fifth year option would have been picked up) if he had his teammate’s soft hands.


Missed Tackles

Denver Broncos vs Pittsburgh Steelers

Missed tackles was one of my bigger frustrations last year, and the ILBs looked deeply mediocre in this category. I used PFR’s “Missed Tackles” as my stats (I don’t know how you determine that in real-time), and leaned on their “Missed Tackles Percentage” as the scale.

Games 1-10

NFL all AFC all NFL sfty AFC sfty All defenders G GS comb MTkl MTkl%
NFL all AFC all NFL sfty AFC sfty All defenders G GS comb MTkl MTkl%
296 141 48 20 Minkah Fitzpatrick 10 10 47 6 11.30%
31 17 2 1 Terrell Edmunds 10 8 44 1 2.20%
Missed tackle percentage is calculated by dividing the missed tackles by the total tackle attempts (actual combined tackles plus those missed). That tells the percentage of total tackle attempts that failed.

With the ILBs, we discovered that most missed tackles came on rushing plays (since the Steelers ILBs were excellent at allowing no YAC, but missed quite a few tackles). With safeties, there is less of a simple correlation that can be made.

In other words, some of these missed tackles are on running plays; some are on passes.

Whichever the case, Terrell Edmunds was extremely good at wrapping up ball carriers once he got within arm’s reach. Minkah Fitzpatrick was, somewhat bafflingly, not. I’m stuck with the same hypothesis I had earlier: that games such as the Philly contest must have been rough ones for the free safety.

Games 11-16

NFL all AFC all NFL sfty AFC sfty All defenders G GS comb MTkl MTkl%
NFL all AFC all NFL sfty AFC sfty All defenders G GS comb MTkl MTkl%
- - - - Minkah Fitzpatrick 6 6 32 5 15.60%
- - - - Terrell Edmunds 5 4 23 5 21.70%

During the closing stretch, we see a significant sag. Fitzpatrick drops slightly, while Edmunds falls off a cliff. Now, again, Edmunds had three missed tackles against Baltimore (which you might think of as “60% of his missed tackles during this entire stretch”), so we have to process his stumble with that in mind.

I suspect we’re going to see this trend continue with the corners and pass rushers as well —where the physical aspects of their play start to fall off as the season wears on. Fatigue was one of my biggest concerns with this team as they kept getting games postponed and weeks of no rest. Physicality would be the first place exhaustion would show up, logically speaking. And it’s probably no coincidence that the offense’s rushing struggles got worse as the season wore on as well.

Full Season

NFL all AFC all NFL sfty AFC sfty All defenders G GS comb MTkl MTkl%
NFL all AFC all NFL sfty AFC sfty All defenders G GS comb MTkl MTkl%
346 153 68 29 Minkah Fitzpatrick 16 16 79 11 12.20%
182 75 27 12 Terrell Edmunds 15 12 68 6 8.10%

Ultimately, Terrell Edmunds looks like a sure tackler. Minkah Fitzpatrick appears somewhat sloppier. I wish I had an explanation for this — Fitzpatrick always seems like a reliable tackler in the moment.

In any event, missed tackles was the most frustrating (and unimpressive) element of the linebacking crew as well. If I were Keith Butler, wrapping up and finishing the take-down would be the highest priority for training camp this year.


Overall, the Steelers have a terrific starting safety duo. We already knew Minkah is a star, but Terrell Edmunds is much better than expected. I don’t know the Steelers front office’s logic in denying his fifth year option — maybe it had to do with money, maybe it had to do with interceptions, maybe the Baltimore game spooked them more than they’ll admit. But whatever the case, both men are coming back this fall, and that’s a really good thing.

As you might have also noticed, there’s not a lot of depth behind them (there weren’t any other Steelers safeties with enough stats to qualify for most rankings). With Edmunds possibly not returning after this year, the battle for backup safety will be a competition worth watching. But we know who the starters will be, and this team is in good hands.

Stay tuned for cornerbacks and pass rushers. Go Steelers.