Over a career with the Steelers now going on fifteen years, Coach Mike Tomlin has coached his share of standout defensive players with the franchise. After all, that side of the ball is his specialty, after cutting his teeth under the tutelage of Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay as the defensive backs coach, before moving onto Minnesota as the defensive coordinator. The franchise has seen eight Defensive Player of the Year honors, and Tomlin has coached half of them, including James Harrison, Troy Polamalu, and recent winner, T.J. Watt, who might not be done adding to that number. Speaking of Polamalu, Tomlin sat down for a podcast today with Mark Bergin and his former player Ike Taylor to discuss some similarities between him and a current player of his, Minkah Fitzpatrick, who’s often compared to the Hall of Famer.
“I have very familiar conversations with Minkah and it sounds a lot like some of the conversations that I had with Troy over the years,” Tomlin said earlier on the Bleav In Steelers podcast. “Man, it’s just, when someone has a unique skillset or a unique perspective on the game, you gotta cultivate that, and you gotta learn from it and not limit it.”
Limitless was the perfect word to describe Polamalu’s play, as he was one of the most versatile defensive chess pieces we’ve ever seen in an NFL uniform. Thus the reason he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer recently in the Class of 2020. For him to mention Fitzpatrick in the same sentence as Polamalu is high praise, especially for a coach of his status who has seen plenty of talent.
Fitzpatrick is widely considered in many league circles as the most complete safety in the league. He can do it all. After being misused by the Dolphins, who frequently played him up in the box, Pittsburgh mortgaged a future first-rounder for him during the 2019 season, and he immediately made a profound impact. His playing style meshed perfectly with the elite front seven the team already had in place, which allowed him to play his more natural free safety role. He flourished, snaring five picks for 130 yards and a touchdown.
Making two First Team All-Pro lists since the team acquired him, it’s apparent the front office fleeced Miami’s. He has elite instincts and athleticism, positional flexibility, and great range on the back end. His value was proven again this past season, as the Steelers were decimated by injuries along their defensive line. Opposing running backs frequently ran roughshod on them, resulting in big play runs into the heart of the secondary. As the last line of defense, Fitzpatrick was more than up to the task, resulting in a career-high 124 tackles, including 84 solo stops.
Like his aforementioned predecessor Polamalu, Fitzpatrick is an invaluable piece to one of the top defensive units in the league. He and his reigning DPOY teammate will look to improve a defense that once again led the league in sacks, but gave up far too many big plays, especially on the ground. As he watched teammate Watt get a mega-deal payday last offseason, Fitzpatrick is now in line to receive his, and deservedly so. In 2021, the Seahawks made Jamal Adams the league’s highest-paid safety, at four years and $70 million, with $38 million in guarantees. Fitzpatrick will easily best that, as the sides are reportedly close to a deal that will lock up the star for the long haul, and hopefully in the upcoming season, can get back to his freelancing, splash-play ways.
Tomlin sure seems to think so, and he brought up the perfect play that encapsulates his true feelings on the way Troy played to what he’s seeing currently from Minkah. We all remember vividly the play against the Tennessee Titans in 2010 in which Polamalu couldn’t have timed his blitz any better, as he leaped over the center to tackle QB Kerry Collins for a loss. His uncanny instincts and field presence allowed this to happen, and it’s a trait the two Steelers’ safeties share.
“Like a lot of people would dream about doing stuff like that and talk about doing stuff like that,” Tomlin said, referencing the play. “We witnessed a guy do stuff like that routinely. I find myself having very similar conversations with Minkah, as opposed to hating the outside the box things that he does and does in a real natural way because his God-given ability, I try to learn from it. I try to bottle it, if you will, in an effort to maybe teach it to others, or to at least gain some understanding about what makes them them.”