There is nothing more important in defense on the football field than protecting the red zone. It is where the vast majority of touchdowns are scored. Largely, defenses are judged by how well they keep opponents from getting into the end zone once they crack the 20-yard line—unless they are exceptionally bad at giving up explosive-play scores. Red-zone defense directly correlates with overall scoring defense, so if you’re good in the former area, it’s very likely that you’re good in the latter, as well.
Last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers had among the best red-zone defenses, one of only five teams in the league to prevent teams from scoring a touchdown on at least half of their trips inside the 20-yard line. They finished the season at exactly 50 percent, tied with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for fourth. The year before they, they allowed a touchdown on nearly 60 percent of their encounters in the red zone, which ranked in the middle of the pack.
One of the biggest differences between 2018 and 2019? Minkah Fitzpatrick, whom the Steelers acquired after the second week of last season. And according to Pro Football Focus, he was the highest-graded safety in the red zone in the entire last in 2019—tied with Kareem Jackson of the Denver Broncos.
Highest-graded Safeties in the red-zone last season
Minkah Fitzpatrick – 90.8
Kareem Jackson – 90.8
Justin Simmons – 90.0
Adrian Amos – 88.3 pic.twitter.com/MVCxpzc2JP
— PFF (@PFF) June 20, 2020
For obvious reasons, you want your free safety to be among the highest performers on your team in the red zone, or really in any situation. He is your last line of defense, so if he is a weak link, that typically means bad things are happening, and frequently.
Not that Pittsburgh’s red-zone defense was bad in the first two games. They actually allowed a touchdown on only 40 percent of their red-zone drives before acquiring Fitzpatrick—but they lost both of those games, so that doesn’t really matter. The New England Patriots scored three explosive-play touchdowns in Week One, including a 20-yard catch-and-run, and the Seattle Seahawks scored two more a week later—in addition to two in the red zone as well.
Fitzpatrick would go on to have an All-Pro season for the Steelers as a second-year player, and did so while learning Pittsburgh’s defense on the fly. He recorded five interceptions and forced a fumble, recovering two. He scored two defensive touchdowns as well, including a long pick six.
With players like him in the secondary and a strong pass rush, Pittsburgh should continue to boast a strong red zone defense, and just a strong defense all around. But as long as they continue to keep a lid on the big plays, holding teams to field goals or worse inside the 20 remains priority number one.