In less than two full seasons, Minkah Fitzpatrick has made an incredible mark on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense, and the two-time All-Pro has done just as much to help his teammates succeed and develop on the field. With intelligence lauded as one of his best traits dating back to his time as a draft prospect at Alabama, Fitzpatrick is one of the rare players who not only has made his teammates better, but has made his coaches better, as well.
Even a man like his current head coach, Mike Tomlin, has learned from Fitzpatrick, entering just his fourth season in the league. Tomlin has coached the Steelers for 14 seasons, won a Super Bowl and appeared in another, and is one of the most successful coaches still active in the NFL. Yet even with four times the experience at the NFL level, Tomlin acknowledges the impact Fitzpatrick has had on him.
“I spend a lot of time with Minkah, and guys like him with his talent level and perspective on the game require the time. And it’s interesting because I’ve learned over the years that I probably ask more questions of him, because I want to know what he sees and why, so that we can reproduce it on a more consistent basis,” Tomlin said, appearing on the Flying Coach Podcast hosted by Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay and NFL Network’s Peter Schrager.
“When you’re coaching players like that, they bring the best out in us,” Tomlin continued. “I learned the skills to coach Minkah down there in Tampa coaching gold jacket [Hall of Famer] John Lynch, and Ronde Barber, right? When you’re 28, man, coaching 29-year-old John Lynch, and Ronde shoot, I played college ball against Ronde, man, just the level of preparedness you have to be ready for.”
Tomlin was referencing his first job in the NFL, as defensive backs coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2001-2005. During that time, Tampa won its first ever Super Bowl in 2002, led in part by the secondary featuring a future Hall of Famer in Lynch, a lockdown corner in Barber, and Super Bowl MVP safety Dexter Jackson.
Alex Kozora wrote about further comparisons Tomlin made between Fitzpatrick and Barber during the podcast, and that is not praise Tomlin offers lightly. During his time as an NFL coach, he has worked not just with that pair of Buccaneers and Fitzpatrick, but has also coached defensive backs like Troy Polamalu, Joe Haden, and Antoine Winfield. All of those players have something in common: Greatness. And that status as one fo the game’s best influences how Tomlin works to get the most out of his current safety.
“It’s easy to get a C player to play B. Get an A player to show up and play A every week, and it’s real. We always want to pat ourselves on the back, well we get a backup and he plays good. No, I’m going to be interested in seeing what Aaron Donald plays like week in and week out,” Tomlin said, referencing McVay’s star defender in Donald. “Because the challenges for us and the standards that we hold ourselves to as coaches was just that: Okay, forget making an average player play good. Can we get the great ones to play great every week? And that’s the approach that I still hold to this day, and that’s the spirit in which I coach Minkah.”