2021 South Side Questions: Who Will Be Primary Free Safety On Sunday?

Steelers secondary

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2021 season is underway, and they are hoping for a better outcome in comparison to last season. After starting out 11-0, they finished the year 1-4 in the regular season, and then lost in the Wildcard Round to the Cleveland Browns, ignited by a 0-28 first quarter.

They have lost a large number of key players in the offseason, like Maurkice Pouncey, Bud Dupree, Alejandro Villanueva, David DeCastro, Mike Hilton, and Steven Nelson, but they’ve also made significant additions as the months have gone on, notably Trai Turner, Melvin Ingram, Joe Schobert, and Ahkello Witherspoon. They also added Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth, Kendrick Green, and Dan Moore Jr., all of whom are starting.

There isn’t much left to do but to play the games at this point. Even if they play them poorly. They still have a lot to figure out, though, such as what Matt Canada’s offense is going to look like in any given week, or how the new-look secondary and offensive line is going to play.

These are the sorts of questions among many others that we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football has become a year-round pastime and there is always a question to be asked. There is rarely a concrete answer, but this is your venue for exploring the topics we present through all their uncertainty.

Question: Who is the Steelers’ primary free safety on Sunday if indeed Minkah Fitzpatrick remains in the COVID-19 protocol?

With the Steelers preparing to be without free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick on Sunday, and no glaringly obvious full-time direct backup, it stands to reason that the team will have to employ multiple personnel combinations over the course of the game to fill his shoes—after all, head coach Mike Tomlin said as much on Tuesday.

So the question, then, is who? Will it be rookie Tre Norwood? He opened the season as the team’s primary slot defender, and was playing quite a bit for a couple of weeks, but they then drastically pared down his role. He did play more this past Sunday, logging 28 snaps (about 40 percent of the total).

Tomlin also mentioned Miles Killebrew, a veteran player who was signed primarily for his special teams abilities. He was used at times Sunday in a heavy base package for run support. But it’s hard to imagine him getting a full workload there against a team like the Los Angeles Chargers and quarterback Justin Herbert.

Then there’s Karl Joseph, a veteran former starter and former first-round pick who has been on the practice squad all season. He has been elevated for one game already this season, but he could dress on Sunday as a COVID-19 replacement that would not use up his second allotted elevation for the season.

The other option, really, is cornerback Cameron Sutton, and that would give them their most experienced package, as James Pierre has now made a couple of starts at outside cornerback, where he would play if Sutton were to move to safety. But he has hardly shifted to safety at all since the opener.

If you were to ask me, I would put my money on Norwood getting 80-plus percent of the snaps at free safety. I think the coaching staff has a lot of comfort in him, regardless of the fact that he’s a rookie, and he’s been playing at a pretty high level in recent weeks in spite of the limited number of opportunities.

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