The Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 league year is rolling into the summer. Until the Steelers take the field, we’re going to take a look at some of the top players on the Steelers and their best game on 2022. For this week’s Steelers Vertex, it’s MInkah Fitzpatrick’s Week 1 performance against the Bengals.
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 saw a 2022 season where he was selected First-Team All-Pro for the third time. Fitzpatrick, who lead the NFL with six interceptions, had one returned for a touchdown as well as having 11 passes defensed and 96 tackles.
Looking specifically at Week 1 of 2022 where he was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week, Fitzpatrick had an interception returned for a touchdown and 14 tackles, the most he had in any game of 2022. Fitzpatrick also played all 100 defensive snaps.
According to the advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference, Fitzpatrick was targeted nine times with six completions for 54 yards and did not have a missed tackle in the game. In terms of special teams, Fitzpatrick blocked what would be the game-winning field goal at the end of regulation.
The numbers look great. Now let’s relive some of the best moments by looking at the film.
The Film Line:
The 2022 season started out with a big matchup between the Steelers and Bengals, the Steelers game plan revolved around Minkah Fitzpatrick, and it wreaked havoc on the Bengals offense from the very start.
Steelers @ Bengals, 1st quarter, 13:31
Minkah Fitzpatrick (#39) is the deep safety to the top of the screen.
This is the first play of the game for Cincinatti and therefore the first defensive play of the season for the Steelers. The Steelers have a three-safety nickel set on the field with Tre Norwood as the other deep safety and Terrell Edmunds in the slot to the top of the screen.
The Steelers start in a two-high safety look, telegraphing a cover-2 look, but rotating to a slow developing cover-3. Burrow sees he has three receivers with two defenders to the top and knows the outside corner can’t cover the deep route and the out route at the same time, and all the help is too far away. He’s mostly right, but as he turns post-snap to find an open receiver he sees Minkah Fitzpatrick coming into the play to threaten any throw to the out route. It’s enough to convince Burrow to look elsewhere and that’s all the time Cameron Heyward needs to disrupt the play.
Steelers @ Bengals, 1st quarter, 12:52
Minkah Fitzpatrick (#39) is the deep safety in the top right corner of the screen.
This time the Steelers run a Tampa-2 defense and you can see #51 Myles Jack drop from his linebacker spot into the deep middle. Burrow has pressure coming, and instead of looking off his first read due to Minkah’s presence, he tries to make the throw. This was the wrong choice. The sack was better.
Joe Burrow would not test Minkah again in this game. The advanced stats say Minkah was targeted more, but those are almost entirely on dump offs underneath where Minkah was a safe distance away but still the closest defender.
Steelers @ Bengals, 1st quarter, 12:06
Minkah Fitzpatrick (#39) is on the line, farthest to the top of the screen.
Here Fitzpatick comes all the way up to the line of scrimmage. Notice the trips receivers to the other side of the formation, away from Minkah Fitzpatrick. By putting their best safety on the other side, the Bengals can’t attack the linebackers very well with crossing routes heading to the weak side of the formation, and the jet sweep and any resulting action from it is dead before the snap. Not only that, Fitzpatrick is the one making the tackle on this play. His awareness and reaction time is top notch no matter where he lines up, compare Fitzpatrick to #55 Devin Bush Jr. on this play, and how quickly they each figure out what is happening.
Moving Fitzpatrick around meant the Bengals couldn’t really know where he would be when they broke the huddle. Burrow had to determine his read order at the line of scrimmage, and then frequently reset it after the snap. That’s a big reason for the 7 sacks and 6 QB hits the Steelers defense recorded, they made Joe Burrow take time just to avoid Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Steelers @ Bengals, 4th quarter, 0:02
Minkah Fitzpatrick (#39) is second from the left on the line of scrimmage.
Everyone should remember this moment, the Bengals offense came out with a better plan in the second half, took a lot of dump offs and found ways to get Ja’Marr Chase away from Minkah Fitzptrick and came back to earn this shot at finally taking a lead with 2 seconds left in the game.
Cameron Sutton does a great job driving into the outside blocker’s arm to pull him wide and let Fitzpatrick come through and do what he does best, make a play on the ball.
Steelers @ Bengals, Overtime, 6:08
Minkah Fitzpatrick is the deep safety to the bottom of the screen.
Again Fitzpatrick is coming up toward the line of scrimmage at the snap, and this time he stops Joe Mixon. Minkah Fitzptrick was a huge part of the Steelers run defense in 2021, and the first game of 2022 the Steelers put him closer to the line of scrimmage and he was the team’s leading tackler.
Steelers @ Bengals, Overtime, 4:07
Minkah Fitzpatrick is the deep safety to the top of the screen.
Every other defender goes with the play-action, Minkah Fitzpatrick reads the play, and with his nemesis charging the play Joe Burrow smartly throws the ball low and settles for a 3-yard gain.
Notice that in almost all of the above clips Minkah Fitzpatrick is coming forward into a shorter, middle of the field assignment while Terrell Edmunds or Tre Norwood is deep. When we look at the roster for 2023 and see Damonte Kazee as the other main safety, the way the Steelers used Fitzpatrick in this game makes sense. If the Steelers are going to have a three-safety rotation they have a deep zone specialist in Damonte Kazee, a box safety in Keanu Neal, and Minkah Fitzpatrick who can play both of those, but shines in the spaces between those two roles.
The Steelers use of Minkah Fitzpatrick has evolved since they first acquired him in Week 3 of the 2019 season, and the team seems better equipped than ever to move him around and cause headaches for the opposing offense. While Fitzptrick had a fantastic 2022 season, nothing tops his Week 1 performance in the Steelers upset of the Bengals. The fact that that game looks like a blueprint for how they have re-built the safety room around him should be exciting to Steeler fans everywhere.