The Pittsburgh Steelers were extremely shorthanded defensively on Sunday, in numerous ways, in both the short and long term. All in all, they were down five players who should have been starters at the beginning of the season, including the most recent, hopefully one-week absences of outside linebacker T.J. Watt, cornerback Joe Haden, and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, the latter of whom tested positive for COVID-19 last week.
It wasn’t easy for the Steelers to replace any of them, in part due to in-season moves such as the release of Jamir Jones and the trade of Melvin Ingram at outside linebacker, but they had a rookie seventh-round pick in Tre Norwood starting in Fitzpatrick’s spot—going from a two-time first-team All-Pro to somebody making their first career start.
While he did make a couple of mistakes—including one glaring one that spoiled the ending—Norwood overall seemed to hold up serviceably in his debut as a free safety in a meaningful game. But there is no comparison to Fitzpatrick, who missed just the first game of his four-year career Sunday.
“Minkah’s a special player”, defensive captain Cameron Heyward told reporters on Sunday following the team’s loss. “His range is pretty special. He can play the deep third. He can be a linebacker, almost, and cover a lot of ground. And he’s always up for making big plays”.
The Steelers first acquired Fitzpatrick, a 2018 11th-overall pick out of Alabama, via trade in Week 3 of the 2019 season. He made an instant impact, recording an interception and forcing a fumble in his first game after a short week of practice and playing every snap. He has been first-team All-Pro in both of his two ‘full’ seasons here.
So far, however, he has struggled to make an impact. He does have one forced fumble, but has yet to pick off a pass. It looked as though he had number one last week, but the play was negated by an unrelated penalty, in a game that they would end up drawing even in at the end.
Fitzpatrick is a week out from his initial diagnosis, so there is reason to be opmistic he should be able to clear the protocols within the next couple of days. Ben Roethlisberger was cleared this past weekend after his initial positive test on the previous Saturday.
The Steelers have a big couple of divisional games up next, starting with a trip to Ohio against the Cincinnati Bengals. They will certainly need all hands on deck, with the Baltimore Ravens coming to down just a week later. Fitzpatrick may not have a lot of splash plays on his 2021 highlight reel so far, but he certainly makes a difference in less obvious ways.