The Pittsburgh Steelers made a bold and somewhat surprising trade in 2019 in order to acquire safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who at the time was just starting out his second season in the league after the Miami Dolphins selected him 11th overall in the 2018 NFL Draft.
While he had an encouraging rookie season the year before, he has since turned into one of the top safeties in the league, making the first-team All-Pro team in each of his two years with the Steelers, and seemingly finally stepping into the role of successor to Troy Polamalu, recently selected for enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Will he continue to find success entering his fourth season, and third with the Steelers? He’d best hope so, as this is his contract year. Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports predicts continued positive results, projecting Fitzpatrick to lead the NFL in interceptions.
“The Steelers pass rush may slip some”, he writes. “They may just allow the premier defensive backs to take a few more chances and follow their instincts and try to capitalize. And none will do so more than Fitzpatrick. The Steelers made a rare trade to land him, and he will continue to pay dividends”.
The Alabama alum has intercepted nine passes over the course of the past two seasons. That ranks tied for the fourth-most in the NFL in that span, behind only J.C. Jackson, Xavien Howard, and Tyrann Mathieu. Howard intercepted 10 passes last season, Jackson nine. Jackson leads the group with 14 interceptions over the past two seasons.
Regardless of where it winds up placing him relative to the rest of the league, Fitzpatrick’s ball skills have been crucial for the Steelers’ own turnaround. With his five interceptions in 2019 (a feat that Joe Haden also accomplished that season), it marked the first time since 2010 that any defender on the team recorded more than three interceptions in a single season. He added another four this past season to duplicate the feat.
But it would certainly be a mistake to just paint him as a ballhawk. He’s also recorded 136 tackles in 30 games since arriving in Pittsburgh with a pair of forced fumbles and three recoveries. He’s scored three defensive touchdowns since getting here.
Fitzpatrick would be the first Steelers in a very long time to lead the NFL in interceptions. Mel Blount was the most recent, doing so in 1975 when he recorded 11. Mike Wagner also did it two years earlier in 1973 with eight. Wagner may also be the most underrated player of that defense.
For the historians, the Steelers have had three other players lead the NFL in interceptions for a season, for five in total. Those instances occurred in the pre-Super Bowl era. The first was Bill Dudley, a two-way player, in 1946 with 10. Jack Butler duplicated that number in 1957, and then Dean Derby led the league two years later with seven. Both Dudley and Butler — as well as Blount — are with Polamalu in the Hall of Fame.