The Pittsburgh Steelers have never been in a position in which they had to consider what to do at free safety ever since they acquired Minkah Fitzpatrick in 2019. The All-Pro has played nearly every snap since arriving, and even played in the regular-season finale last year while many other starters rested.
Yet life outside of football likely will cause him to miss the first game of his career, having tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the week. While not technically impossible for a vaccinated individual to go from testing positive to playing within a week’s time, head coach Mike Tomlin himself said that they don’t expect him to play.
So if he doesn’t, who does? Tomlin said that he anticipates it being beyond a one-person job, but it seems the first man to the plate is rookie seventh-round pick Tre Norwood, and that is because he hasn’t played like a rookie nor a seventh-round pick since he arrived.
“He’s a smart football player. He knows pretty much where everybody’s supposed to be, and he knows where he’s supposed to be”, defensive coordinator Keith Butler said of him yesterday, via transcript. “He’s sharp in terms of what we’re trying to do, so we felt like he could do that. He’s not just one particular [position]. The best thing about him is his versatility in terms of knowing different positions, not just safety: the nickel, all that stuff. He knows what everybody’s doing. That always helps any player who knows what everybody else on the field is doing”.
The fact that he is able to play multiple positions—the bulk of his snaps are from the slot, even though he primarily practiced at free safety throughout the summer, and he played both positions pretty extensively while in college—does give the coaching staff that added flexibility.
The Steelers actually were not only playing him considerably more, but moving him around considerably more, at the start of the season. He logged 68 snaps in the opener, for example, credited with 46 snaps in the slot, 19 at free safety, two in the box, and one at wide corner.
After playing 118 snaps through the first two games, however, the team radically scaled back his role, playing primarily in dime looks, and averaging about 15 snaps per game. But he played 28 snaps this past week (albeit in an overtime game), logging about 40 percent of the snaps, indicating his role expanding again.
The Steelers try to be cautious about how much they put on a rookie’s plate, unless, of course, he’s a running back drafted in the early rounds, but I do think that both sides benefited from how they have handled Norwood’s playing time over the past month