As of October 2022, Minkah Fitzpatrick — his dual arm sleeves, free-ranging play style and innate ball-hawking skills — serves as one of the centerpieces for not just the Steelers’ defense, but also for the entire franchise.
Yet, just over three years earlier, the safety was not even in the Steel City.
After a winding career path, Fitzpatrick returns to Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium for the first time since he last played as a member of the Dolphins: Sept. 15, 2019. The first start post-concussion for Tua Tagovailoa and the celebration of Miami’s undefeated 1972 team are noteworthy, but Fitzpatrick’s homecoming of sorts is particularly important.
The deal that sent Fitzpatrick to Pittsburgh is significant in terms of on-field production — but it ultimately reflects a much deeper paradigm shift that could very well mimic the 2022 season.
On Sept. 13, 2019, Fitzpatrick formally requested a trade from South Beach. The 2018 first-round pick was not content with being asked to play more downhill as opposed to sitting in center field, identifying routes and pouncing like a lion.
Fitzpatrick’s attitude shifted as a result of Miami hiring Brian Flores, who wanted the Alabama product to transition to more of strong safety responsibilities. Ironically enough, Flores is now reunited with Fitzpatrick: on the Steelers, helping to orchestrate Mike Tomlin’s defense. While Flores more so oversees linebackers and the front seven, there’s something poetic about the Dolphins’ highly touted prospect and coach having stayed together despite leaving Miami.
At just 22, Fitzpatrick attracted significant interest in the moments he was put on the open market, but the Steelers landing the stud DB felt like a pipe dream for a number of reasons.
First, Pittsburgh sat at 0-2 after being embarrassed on Sunday Night Football against the Patriots and losing Ben Roethlisberger for the year vs. the Seahawks. There was legitimate concern that the Steelers would end the season with a top-five pick in the draft; the path to success without Roethlisberger did not appear evident.
That wasn’t the only injury from the contest: starting safety Sean Davis tore his labrum. Davis was eventually placed on Injured Reserve and missed the rest of 2019.
True, Pittsburgh was in need of a new starting safety alongside second-year Terrell Edmunds. But many wondered if it was logical to mortgage a presumptive high first-round pick in a “lost” season for a player of Fitzpatrick’s caliber, especially given his robust market. Kevin Colbert and the Steelers did just that, shipping their 2020 first-round pick to the Dolphins on Sept. 16, 2019.
The trade reflected a markedly different approach: it was the first time since 1967 that Pittsburgh would not have a selection in the top 32. Moreover, the last player the Steelers had acquired during the season and before the Trade Deadline was tackle Levi Brown in 2013, who was cut the following offseason. Put another way, the Steelers had almost never leveraged top assets for a young superstar before they did so with Fitzpatrick.
From Fitzpatrick’s first game in black and gold, his transcendent talent was evident. He posted an interception, forced fumble, pressure and pass deflection while permitting just a 56.2 passer rating in San Francisco. The Steelers fell 24-20 to the 49ers, but the game was closer than many expected against the eventual NFC Champions.
While Mike Tomlin’s squad sat at 0-3, the premise of having given Miami a top-five pick quickly faded. The Steelers would go 8-2 in their next 10 games, many of which were catalyzed by their gilded addition. While a three-game losing streak to end the year prevented Pittsburgh from making a run at the playoffs, even finishing 8-8 without the starting quarterback was highly impressive.
2019 proved to be just the trailer in three encore performances from Fitzpatrick. In 39 games since his first year in the Steel City, the safety has accumulated nine interceptions, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, 248 tackles and even two touchdowns. From roaming all the way down from the backfield to prevent touchdown runs to last-moment pass breakups, Fitzpatrick — having missed only two contests as a Steeler — has become the very heartbeat of the team, rewarded with a four-year, $73 million deal before 2022.
When the Steelers take the field in the 305 on Sunday night, they carry with them a 2-4 record reflective of a rebuilding team — ironically enough, the same mark as the 2019 bunch had. Sure, Pittsburgh is coming off of a resounding upset victory over Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, but Mike Tomlin’s group ranks 23rd in Football Outsiders DVOA. Beyond just poor play and coaching, the Steelers still face two daunting games before their bye week, which they could very well enter 2-6.
Much like in 2019, hope is not yet lost for the 2022 Steelers. A win on SNF would contribute significantly to the team’s slim playoff odds, which sit at 7%, per FiveThirtyEight.
As in three years ago, maybe Pittsburgh’s general manager — now Omar Khan, Kevin Colbert’s successor — could swing for the fences in the trade block, acquiring a cornerback like Bryce Hall or Noah Igbinoghene. Then again, the spark for resurrecting a season with a faint heartbeat may already be on the roster, wearing No. 39.