The Pittsburgh Steelers defense had the look of complete unit during the 2022 NFL Preseason, but an injury to backup safety Damontae Kazee changed some of their plans heading into the regular season.
I’m sure there are some who are thinking how a backup safety injury would somehow alter the team’s defensive plans, but Kazee wasn’t just a typical backup. In fact, the defense had been utilizing three safeties as a unique look which gave them both versatility and flexibility as it pertained to how the team defended the opposition.
In the Week 3 preseason game vs. the Detroit Lions Kazee left the game with a wrist injury, an injury which landed him on Injured Reserve (IR) Thursday. Kazee being put on IR means he will at least have to miss the first four games of the regular season before he could potentially return.
How are the Steelers going to replace Kazee? And will the defense be able to still utilize the three safety look which looked to be a common thread in the 2022 defense?
“We’re going to do what we have to do.” Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said this week. “We know it’s a next man up principle here. And so, we’ll find somebody else to fill that job. However, we do it. It might be with another safety it might be with another body; it might be a corner. I don’t know how we’ll do it, but we’ll fill that role, and we’ll fill that stuff we need to get done with someone else.”
When looking at the current roster, there is a name which stands out as a possible replacement for Kazee, and that would be second year defensive back Tre Norwood. Norwood played more than most expected for a 7th Round pick in his rookie season, but is he a viable option to provide what the defense needs?
“He’s an option, yeah absolutely, he’s an option.” Austin said when asked if Norwood could be an option in their current position. “But there’s other things as well. Not exactly sure how that’s going to play out this week, but I think it he is definitely a guy that we would consider. He’s played some football for us especially on some third downs and different things and done a good job. So, he’ll be in the mix there.”
The fact remains Austin, and other defensive coaches, won’t just rely on one, or two, players to fill the void left by Kazee. The team could deploy players like Arthur Maulet, Cam Sutton and even Miles Killebrew, depending on the situation, to help fill the defensive void.
The ultimate goal with this specific defensive package is to allow Minkah Fitzpatrick to roam free and be able to show his playmaking skills in a variety of ways. Throughout the preseason the Steelers have used Fitzpatrick as a hybrid linebacker, a slot cornerback and even a deep safety. Whoever fills in for what Kazee was going to do will hopefully still provide Austin with the same flexibility as it pertains to the team’s All-Pro safety.
“It wasn’t a desire to get Minkah to ball hunt. It was a desire to get a really good football player on the field.” Austin said when talking about getting Kazee on the field with the starting defense. “I think Kazee is a good football player. And that’s really what it was to try to get your best players and put them in position to make some good plays.
“Obviously, the added bonus of that was it freed Minkah up a little bit more. But, you know, like I said, well we’ll figure out what we have to do and who we need to get to do some of that roll. But right now, that’s still under discussion.”
Why try to free up Fitzpatrick?
“He looks good when he’s freed up.” Austin replied.
The loss of Kazee doesn’t look, on paper, to be a season-ending loss, but at the same time the Steelers will have to figure out what defensive package they will deploy in Week 1 vs. the Cincinnati Bengals. Will it be similar to what the defense did with Kazee in the preseason, or will it be something which looks completely different?
Cincinnati will be wondering the same thing as the regular season approaches, but the defense will certainly be tested early with Joe Burrow, Joe Mixon and Ja’Marr Chase ready to prove their AFC Championship victory was no fluke, but a sign of things to come.
The hope is the Steelers’ defense is ready for the task.
Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they prepare for the start of the regular season on September 11th in Cincinnati, OH.