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What role would Damontae Kazee play in a 2023 return to the Steelers?

In what way did Kazee compliment the Steelers All-Pro safety?

NFL: NOV 20 Bengals at Steelers Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 offseason is underway. As the team looks at it’s potentially departing players due to impending free agency, some players may be returning while others will test the market. To get a better idea as to how the Steelers might be looking, we’re going to dive into several of the free agents starting with ones who played the most in 2022. Next up will be Damontae Kazee. 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:

After missing the Steelers first eight games of the season due to a broken forearm suffered in the last preseason game, Damontae Kazee stepped on the field with his first action of the season in Week 9 playing 100% of the snaps due to the appendectomy of Minkah Fitzpatrick the day before. Against the Saints, Kazee had one of his two interceptions on the season as well as four tackles. He was flagged for a personal foul penalty on a play where he could have simply let the player catch the ball or hit him hard which drew the flag.

In his nine games in Pittsburgh in 2022, Kazee had four starts and played 273 defensive snaps as well as 58 more on special teams. As mentioned before, Kazee had two interceptions on the season as well as two passes defensed and 20 tackles.

According to Pro Football Reference, Kazee surrendered seven completions on 13 targets with a 63.6% completion percentage for 79 yards. Kazee was not credited with giving up a touchdown in 2022, nor was he credited with any missed tackles.

While the numbers don’t pop off the page, let’s see if the film paints a different picture.

The Film Line:

Damontae Kazee missed the first half of the season, but when he returned for Week 10, he stepped fully into the game plan with Minkah Fitzpatrick missing that matchup with the New Orleans Saints, starting, and playing the entire game at free safety.

Steelers vs. Saints, 1st quarter, 3:03

Damontae Kazee is the safety that drops into the deep middle.

I wanted to start with this play because most plays for a deep safety look like this. They drop deep, looking to help with any deep routes, and are then uninvolved because the pass is a short one. 82% of pass attempts in 2022 were less than 15 yards from the line of scrimmage.

Kazee starts 15 yards back and goes deeper from there. His job is to keep all the routes in front of him, and he does that job. That’s the basic life of a deep safety.

Steelers vs. Saints, 2nd quarter, 10:07

Damontae Kazee is the safety in the deep middle.

This is a play we’ve seen Minkah Fitzpatrick make a lot. The deep safety has to attack these routes to limit yards after the catch. This cover-3 look has a huge opening because Robert Spillane is slow getting depth after the play-action, and it leaves a huge opening for the Saints to fit the pass into. Kazee, like Fitzpatrick, does a good job of coming up and making the tackle.

Steelers vs. Saints, 2nd quarter, 10:07

Damontae Kazee is the deep safety.

The Steelers react to this read option the way they normally do. The Steelers have T.J. Watt hit the quarterback no matter what. That takes away any QB run options as well as any pass plays they might think up coming off a zone read look.

The problem is, with Watt out of the run play the defense has 5 defenders facing 6 blockers, and on this play Damontae Kazee is a bit slow to react to the run. This is where Kazee falls behind Minkah Fitzpatrick as a single-high safety. Fitzpatrick led the Steelers in tackles in 2021 when the run defense struggled, and cut runs like this down well before the 14 yards this play gains. Kazee isn’t Minkah Fitzpatrick, but you already knew that.

These three plays show what a deep middle safety does on most plays.

Steelers vs. Saints, 2nd quarter, 0:29

Damontae Kazee is the deep safety to the top of the screen.

Damontae Kazee gets to the receiver in time to break up the pass on this play, but he hits too high and it is a 15-yard penalty. It’s a problem he’s had before this game as well, with nine illegal hit/tackle related penalties in five seasons, four of them in 2021 while playing for the Cowboys.

Steelers vs. Saints, 2nd quarter, 1:28

Damontae Kazee is the deep safety to the top of the screen.

Watch the defense to the top of the screen. You can see the switches in coverage with the Steelers pattern-matching defense. Arthur Maulet picks up the short route, letting Levi Wallace pick up his slot receiver heading deeper, while Damontae Kazeecomes up to defend the tight end’s stick route while also putting himself in the way of a pass to the slot receiver.

This is really good coverage, and this is how the Steelers pass defense works in pass-heavier situations. The Steelers coverage schemes rely on execution more than physical traits.

Steelers vs. Saints, 2nd quarter, 0:23

Damontae Kazee is the deep safety to the bottom of the screen.

The next play after Kazee’s penalty was a touchdown. First look at the bottom of the screen, and see how effortlessly the receivers are covered. Now look to the top and notice how Levi Wallace gets caught up on the inside route and lets the outside route score.

In Week 16, Kazee would get the chance to start beside Minkah Fitzpatrick with Terrell Edmunds out.

Steelers vs. Raiders, 4th quarter, 7:39

Damontae Kazee is the deep safety.

Notice there is just one deep safety, and it isn’t Minkah Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick lines up over the slot receiver to the bottom and blitzes. His pressure helps create a Cameron Heyward sack.

When Damontae Kazee and Minkah Fitzpatrick were the starting safeties, Fitzpatrick played strong safety. He was good at it. Just like he is a better free safety than Damontae Kazee in many aspects of the position, Fitzpatrick is also a better strong safety than Terrell Edmunds in many of the jobs that position fills. In fact he was playing strong safety for the Miami Dolphins in 2019, and was good at it. He also requested a trade because he didn’t want to be a full-time strong safety. Fitzpatrick isn’t a box safety. We’ve seen how often Terrell Edmunds comes into the box and plays like a linebacker, Minkah Fitzpatrick isn’t that guy. But in zone and man coverage, he can match or exceed what Terrell Edmunds brings.

Steelers vs. Raiders, 4th quarter, 0:43

Damontae Kazee is the deep safety to the bottom of the screen.

With both Kazee and Fitzpatrick, the Steelers send Fitzpatrick forward to mess with the middle of the field. While I can’t guarantee it, if you look at Kazee and Spillane, Kazee initially drops outside the hash marks, and Spillane is right in the middle of the field. This looks like quarters defense but Minkah Fitzpatrick takes an ad-lib and heads up to cut off the three-headed attack on his side. Kazee sees it and comes over to fill the gap. Again, I can’t guarantee that’s what is happening here, but it sure looks like an instance of Minkah Fitzpatrick having the Polamalu-esque clearance to change his role based on the play.

Either way, the execution of the defense leaves no good options for Derek Carr, and he ends up throwing a prayer to Davante Adams on the sideline that ends up incomplete.

Steelers vs. Raiders, 4th quarter, 0:36

Damontae Kazee is the deep safety to the top of the screen.

The next play is Cameron Sutton’s game-sealing interception. It’s also a great look at the Steelers turning a cover-3 look into a cover-2 defense with Minkah Fitzpatrick ending up like a Tampa-2 deep linebacker by just staying put. The scheme works too. This play is attacking the middle of the field in what should be the space right in front of the middle safety in the cover-3. Instead of asking Fitzptrick to pick one guy to cover and leave the other open, Fitzpatrick is already in position to deny both, forcing Carr to lead his throw farther upfield, where Sutton makes the play.

It’s also worth pointing out here that Cameron Sutton, himself a high-end deep zone guy, is in the worst position of the deep defenders, waiting a bit too long to pinch the middle of the field.

Steelers vs. Browns, 1st quarter, 12:42

Damontae Kazee is the deep safety to the top of the screen.

This is a designed switch to cover-3. You can see Kazee heading into the middle from the snap (you can also see why it is hard to tell when that switch is designed and when it is a reaction). Minkah Fitzpatrick does what he does best, come up, attack, and take away an important section of the pass play. Terrell Edmunds is lined up at outside corner to the bottom, and you can see how he passes off his man, pinches the crossing route, and also forces the pass to be thrown higher.

These three safeties playing together were a driving force in the Steelers late season defense, and Kazee’s deep coverage was a big part of it.

The Point:

Damontae Kazee’s value in passing downs is pretty clear, not just for his own ability, but also the flexibility it allows Minkah Fitzpatrick in those situations. The only problem is a safety pair of Kazee and Fitzpatrick puts Fitzpatrick in the role of box safety, and that is not his best usage. The ideal solution is bringing back both Kazee and Edmunds and giving them a full season to play together. While it isn’t clear how the Steelers would divide up those snaps to get them all on the field when it isn’t dime defense, that is the type of problem you want to have.