For as long as Sean Davis is out with a torn labrum and for 2020 and beyond, assuming Davis (slated to be a free agent) has signed elsewhere, Minkah Fitzpatrick will be the Pittsburgh Steelers’ starting free safety.
But his track record shows he’s much more than that. There’s nothing this defense prides itself on versatility. It’s something Keith Butler harped on as recently as this summer.
“You know the safeties, what they play, the position that they play, it matters, it makes a big difference for us,” Butler said in mid-August. “Because most quarterbacks like Tom Brady try to pigeonhole different safeties as to what they play, you know, a post safety, as opposed to coming down in a box, and stuff like that. So, if they can do that, then they can pretty much read what we’re doing and stuff like that so we gotta be able to be a little bit versatile in that.”
Versatility. The ability to match up and provide answers for all the problems opposing offenses are going to show. That’s what Fitzpatrick has shown to be able to do even barely into his sophomore season. So let’s see exactly how the Steelers may use him this season.
Fitzpatrick hasn’t played a lot of safety in his career, it’s mostly been in the slot, but there is some tape out there. Here he is top of the screen, reading the dig route by #3 and driving on the football. Nearly picked it off. Taking advantage of a poor decision by the QB but a nice rep from him as a rookie last year.
Slot is where he’s played the majority of his snaps so far. This is a play you’ve never seen a Steeler make. Picking Tom Brady off on the road. Granted, a 38-0 blowout in Week 4 last year but a nice job carrying the seam, finding the ball, and making a leaping grab.
Here’s one of my favorite plays of his. Flat route turns vertical on this scramble drill. Fitzpatrick plasters, carries it downfield, then – and this is important – doesn’t get out of phase. Easy to turn his head and lose vision on the ball. Lets the receiver’s eyes and hands tell him when it’s coming and he plays the pocket, breaking up the throw.
Here’s a look at the replay. Watch Fitzpatrick play the pocket, separating the receiver’s hands to break up the throw. Beautiful play and not the only moment like this I’ve seen on his tape.
Like safety, not a ton of tape of him at cornerback. But check out this breakup on Kelvin Benjamin last season. A poor throw by Josh Allen but Fitzpatrick was going to break up even a perfect pass. Aggressive, undercutting the route, knowing it’s better to run under than risk getting boxed out by Benjamin’s size.
And he’s played plenty of dimebacker/linebacker too. This clip comes from Sunday. It’s late in the game, another blowout loss, but I like his physicality and desire to finish in a 37-0 spot in the game. Takes on FB James Develin in the hole and rips the ball out of Sony Michel’s hand to create the turnover.
This is just a broad overview of all the ways Fitzpatrick can help this team. He’s going to provide a lot of answers defensively and make gameplanning a lot easier on the coaching staff.
To be clear, he’s not without his warts either, a young safety still prone to making mistakes. He’ll miss tackles though I view him as a physical with clear “want to” in the run game and as a tackler. He struggled against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 1 this year, giving up three touchdowns, though the final one was partially a result of him getting picked by his own linebacker. He can be too aggressive and late to open his hips, allowing him to get burned over the top, as Marquise Brown did to him in that game.
Making this move is a risk because there’s a decent chance this team has a Top 10 pick in the 2020 draft. But Sean Davis was going to walk after this season and there weren’t any in-house options to replace him – Kam Kelly isn’t the answer, as I’m sure you know by now – and the free agent safety market got hot last year. So they would’ve been drafting a safety high again anyway. Now, you secure that player in Fitzpatrick without hoping you get that guy in the draft (and given the Steelers’ poor track record, hoping you evaluated him properly).
Adding him isn’t a move just for this year either. He’s under contract through 2021 with a team option in 2022 so even if this year doesn’t turn around, Ben Roethlisberger will be back next season with Fitzpatrick still in the fold. He isn’t a rental player. He’s a long-term, currently cheap asset and yet another first round pick on this defense. There’s eight of them who are regulars and ten total on this defense, in case you’re wondering.