The Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 regular season is underway. The Steelers left Cincinnati with an overtime win against the reigning AFC champions.It took some great individual performances to secure the victory, with many coming on the defensive side of the ball. One particular player was the AFC Defensive Player of the Week in Minkah Fitzpatrick. So how did Fitzpatrick alter the outcome of Sunday’s game? This is the subject for this week’s Steelers Vertex.
Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.
Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.
Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.
Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.
The Stats Line:
Minkah Fitzpatrick had several key statistics which helped earn him AFC Defensive Player of the Week to start the 2022 season. Fitzpatrick had 14 tackles in the game and an interception which was returned 31 yards for a touchdown On 100 defensive snaps. Fitzpatrick also saw the field on 4 special team snaps, all of which were on the field goal block team. Fitzpatrick came up with the key block on the extra point at the end of regulation to send the game of the overtime.
Looking at some of the advanced stats according to Pro Football Reference, Fitzpatrick was targeted eight times with five completions for 54 yards. Although he was deemed the target on many of these plays, it was not necessarily that Fitzpatrick was in deep coverage as the average depth of targets on when he was determined to be the defender was only 3.9 yards. This means passes where Fitzpatrick was the defender were mainly around the line of scrimmage or he was coming up to make the play. Additionally, Fitzpatrick was not charged with any missed tackles in the game.
Although Minkah Fitzpatrick had a big impact on the game on a number of specific plays, there was more to his stellar play than those snaps. Let’s see if any of them show up in the film.
The Film Line:
Minkah Fitzpatrick wasted no time making his presence felt, turning Joe Burrow’s first pass attempt of 2022 into a Steelers touchdown.
Steelers at Bengals, 1st quarter, 12:52.
Minkah Fitzpatrick (#39) is the deep safety to the right side of the screen.
The Bengals didn’t play their starters on offense at all in the preseason, and the rust showed up on this play. Fitzpatrick was ready to pounce and gave the Steelers a 7-0 lead. The play of the game is usually a play from later in the game, especially in a game like this one that went to the end of overtime. But the biggest play of the game was this one, giving the Steelers a lead right off the bat and, perhaps more importantly, shaking the Bengals confidence and changing their game plan.
Steelers at Bengals, 1st quarter, 12:06.
Minkah Fitzpatrick (#39) is on the line, farthest to the top of the screen.
The Steelers didn’t just leave Minkah Fitzpatrick in deep zone though, they moved him around a lot. That was a great strategy, not just for helping contain Joe Mixon either. After the pick-6 Joe Burrow avoided throwing too close to Minkah Fitzpatrick, and the more Fitzpatrick moved around, the less the Bengals could game plan their offensive plays to avoid him.
Steelers at Bengals, 4th quarter, 0:02.
Minkah Fitzpatrick (#39) is second from the left side of the screen.
The television broadcast pinned this one on the snapper, but the real problem here is the lack of a block on Fitzpatrick. Watch how Cameron Sutton is able to drive #89 for the Bengals off of Fitzpatrick. Minkah Fitzpatrick is not slowed at all on his path to the ball, and his quick extension is just enough to send this game into overtime, where Fitzpatrick would find a way to impact the game even more, often without showing up on the stat sheet at all.
Steelers at Bengals, Overtime, 6:08.
Minkah Fitzpatrick (#39) is the deep safety to the bottom of the screen.
First off, notice the movement of the safeties to start this play. Edmunds and Fitzpatrick are right near each other and split late. They did this often in this game. Usually Fitzpatrick is the field side safety and Edmunds the boundary safety. Field side means the side where the ball is farthest from the sideline, boundary side is the smaller side of the field. Because Ja’Marr Chase frequently lines up on the boundary side, the Steelers flipped that alignment a good bit to give that side more help. But they didn’t always do it.
By delaying the reveal of which side they were defending, the Steelers added more difficulty in diagnosing the defense. Then right at the snap, Edmunds drops and Fitzpatrick comes forward and they aren’t even in a two-deep safety defense. This is a run play, and Fitzpatrick coming up to limit the gain here is nice, and frequent plays like this helped bolster the Steelers run defense and helped Minkah lead the team in tackles. But this play also shows how much mental work Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds were making Joe Burrow do just to avoid Fitzpatrick.
Steelers at Bengals, Overtime, 4:07.
Minkah Fitzpatrick (#39) is the deep safety to the top of the screen.
I love this play by Fitzpatrick. He’s coming forward at the start of the play, as he and the rest of the defense are worried about the run play, but the second he sees it isn’t a run he heads directly to where the ball is going to go. Fitzpatrick is incredibly smart and relentless in film study. His read and react goes beyond his natural assignment and frequently shows up in plays like this. The play design works, no one that should be responsible for the tight end is anywhere close to him. Fitzpatrick was almost single-handedly holding the Bengals in check, limiting the run game, countering down their schemes, and taking away huge sections of the field.
Steelers at Bengals, Overtime, 2:22.
Minkah Fitzpatrick (#39) is the deep safety to the top of the screen.
I included this play because it shows really well something that I noticed almost the entire game.
The Steelers blitz here, and with the linebackers both rushing, the running back is Burrow’s outlet. But Burrow doesn’t look that way at all, he sets himself to his left immediately, and even when he’s escaping pressure he’s not looking to the right. You can see the running back’s frustration. It’s been mentioned a good bit that Joe Burrow wasn’t reading the field well in Week 1, but it was more than that. Joe Burrow was avoiding Minkah Fitzpatrick as much as he could. It would have led to a sack on this play, but rookie DeMarvin Leal (#98) gives up contain and let’s Burrow escape, a rookie mistake on what was mostly a good day for the young man.
Minkah’s huge Week 1 game against the Bengals will be remembered for the big plays, and rightly so as they were incredibly important factors in the Steelers victory. But Minkah Fitzpatrick was a big part of every play the Steelers were on defense, and he was on the field for 100 defensive snaps. While the flashy statistics showed up this week, Fitzpatrick’s influence on a play-by-play basis may not always show similarly on the stat sheet.