Evaluating The Steelers’ Secondary: Safeties

Continuing with my new offseason series, I will give grade evaluation sheets for the Steelers defensive back room, similar to those one would receive from a coaching staff at the conclusion of the season. Today, we will be evaluating the team’s safety room, following in the same format to the grade sheet I released for the cornerback group.

As I had to evaluate their film to give proper grades, I have limited the article to players who played extensive defensive snaps at the safety position this past season. Likewise, I did not include Karl Joseph, who fielded limited playing time this past season, Donovan Stiner, who did not record any defensive or special teams snaps last season as a rookie, along with Miles Killebrew, who has carved out an important role in the league almost solely reliant on his impressive special teams contributions. Enjoy and feel free to let me know what you think in the comments.

Grading Scale

7-Very Good
5-Above Average
3-Below Average
1-Not Acceptable

Minkah Fitzpatrick

Toughness (Physical + Mental) – 8

  • Minkah Fitzpatrick has displayed phenomenal mental toughness throughout his NFL career, adapting to a new role as a slot cornerback and box player in Miami before eventually finding his home at Free Safety in Pittsburgh. Likewise, this past season, he had to adapt into a new role, making far more tackles than ever before in his career as the Steelers run defense plummeted to the bottom of the league. He recorded four games with double digit tackles this past season, single handedly sacrificing his body to keep Pittsburgh in games late in the season. Needless to say, he has flourished throughout his young NFL career regardless of his role and circumstance, consistently improving and showing resiliency.

Tackling – 7

  • Prior to this past season, tackling could’ve been viewed as a relative weakness in Fitzpatrick’s game, with impact plays along with some occasional misses in the open field. This past season, Minkah improved mightily, becoming an elite tackler and ultimately finishing the season with 124 tackles, 84 of which were of the solo variety, along with a tackle for a loss and a forced fumble. With the Steelers fielding a bottom tier run defense this past season, Fitzpatrick’s ability to make sound tackles in the open field consistently held explosive plays from becoming gamebreaking touchdowns. Likewise, while his tackling technique improved mightily, so too did his hit power, with Fitzpatrick providing some eye popping sticks coming downhill throughout the season.

Eyes/Keys/Reads – 9

  • Minkah’s eyes and instincts are ultimately a huge piece of what makes him an elite safety at the NFL level. While he is rangy and able to cover ground in a hurry, Fitzpatrick’s ability to diagnose plays, recognize route distribution, and consistently arrive early in the right spots has helped make him a turnover magnet in his first couple seasons in Pittsburgh. Similarly, Minkah’s film study stands out, having shown the ability to identify plays and blow them up in the backfield, most notably on various reps against read options in his career. Downfield, Minkah is able to close from of phase and play the pocket, keeping his eyes locked onto the receiver as he closes space to stay in position to make plays at the catch point. His ability to keep his eyes in the right places and understand his reads consistently puts him in position to make impact plays and is his biggest weapon in clamping down opposing offenses.

Block Destruction – 5

  • While not a notable strength of his game, Minkah possesses both the quick trigger ability and play strength to both navigate past oncoming blockers in the open field as well as utilize his hands to disengage from blockers to stay clean and make plays. Similar to his tackling and overall physicality, Minkah’s ability to shed blocks has improved steadily throughout his NFL career. Regardless, as a safety who makes most of his tackles in the open field and on alley fills in the run game, he is often not accounted for in the opponent’s blocking scheme, mitigating the need to become an elite player in the block shedding department.

Man Coverage – 6

  • While not often tasked with playing in man coverage assignments as the Steelers post safety, Minkah Fitzpatrick has proven capable of rolling down in catch man coverage, capable of covering tight ends and receivers alike. As solid as Fitzpatrick, who has plenty of experience at both slot and boundary cornerback in his extensive football career, is in man coverage, putting him in these assignments often limits his potential impact. When Pittsburgh runs their patented Cover 1, five man pressure schemes, they are at their best rolling Terrell Edmunds down to cap the blitzer in press man coverage, keeping Minkah as the post safety where he can use his instincts and range to keep opposing quarterbacks guessing and capitalize on tipped balls and overthrows.

Zone Coverage – 9

  • Minkah Fitzpatrick, with some competition from Kevin Byard, is among the very best zone coverage defenders in the NFL. His ability to range from sideline to sideline as a post safety is unparalleled across the league. Similarly, his instincts consistently allow him to jump route concepts over the middle of the field for splash plays including multiple pick sixes in his Pittsburgh career. He is equally adept both as a post safety as well as in a robber role, where he is able to roll down and occupy the shallow middle of the field, giving him freedom to jump quick game concepts. Finally, similar to Dennis Rodman’s uncanny ability to secure rebounds off the glass, Minkah Fitzpatrick has shown an innate ability to position himself perfectly to secure tipped passes and turn them into timely turnovers, doing so more than any other safety in the league since arriving in Pittsburgh. While the Steelers cornerback play has improved over the past few seasons, Minkah’s ability to man the post safety spot at a uniquely high level is what has allowed the Steelers to deploy man coverage at a much higher rate with effective results in recent seasons.

Flexibility – 7

  • Able to fluidly transition from his crossover run into a backpedal, as well as breaking laterally and downhill effectively, Minkah Fitzpatrick’s top end hip and ankle mobility are consistently on display. Placing the utmost trust in his ability to quickly transition his hips to turn and run, Minkah is able to play extremely patiently while gaining depth, keeping himself in phase to contest intermediate targets when assigned as the post safety in Cover 1 and Cover 3 sets.

Strength – 7

  • Minkah Fitzpatrick, with a filled out 6’1” 207 pound frame, entered the league with adequate strength, and has continued to improve his functional strength throughout his young career. This past season, Minkah showed the ability to consistently tackle opposing ball carriers in the open field. Moreover, his hit power has increasingly improved, particularly notable this past season where he delivered some bone crushing hits both inserting into the run game as well as separating receivers from the football at the catch point downfield. Minkah’s combination of raw athleticism and strength give him the tools to produce at an elite level.

Speed – 7

  • Notable both in his ability to range sideline to sideline, as well as his ability to burst past offensive players when returning interceptions, where he is among the best in the NFL, Minkah Fitzpatrick’s speed is consistently on display. Minkah clocked a 4.46 40 yard dash time at the combine ahead of the 2018 draft, and quite honestly, plays faster in his game speed. Particularly apparent on a late pass breakup in a week 17 overtime win over the Baltimore Ravens, Minkah’s ability to close from opposite hash to sideline routinely prevents big plays and is largely a function of his elite speed and football IQ.

Strengths (Does Best)

  • Minkah Fitzpatrick’s eyes and instincts are among the best of any player in the NFL, and his feel for the game is a huge part of what makes him an elite player throughout his early career. Both in pass coverage and when inserting into the run game, Minkah’s play recognition and ability to consistently finish plays near the ball put him in position to make impact plays. Likewise, when put into zone coverage assignments, Minkah is able to utilize his instincts and route recognition to bait and jump routes, as well as placing himself in position to capitalize on tipped balls and overthrows to produce timely and impactful turnovers. Once he has secured a turnover, few defensive players in the league are better with the ball in their hands after turnovers, evidenced by his four career return touchdowns, three of which have come as a Steeler.

Weaknesses (Improve On)

  • As far as weaknesses, it is tough to identify any in Minkah Fitzpatrick’s game, particularly after this past season, where he proved that he is one of the best tackling safeties in the entire league. The only weakness for Fitzpatrick is when teams are seemingly able to mitigate his impact by scheming their targets away from him based on his alignment and assignment. That being said, teams efforts to scheme away from throwing into his zone assignments speaks volumes to the respect that he commands around the league.

Terrell Edmunds

Toughness (Physical + Mental) – 7

  • Despite being thrust into the starting lineup as a rookie, predictably undergoing some struggles throughout the early duration of his NFL career, Edmunds has continued to show great resilience, improving every year throughout his career and consistently playing to the best of his capabilities. Serving as the team’s box safety, which maximizes Minkah’s potential as the post safety, Edmunds has shown more than adequate physical toughness, shedding blocks and consistently sacrificing his body to make stops within the box. His toughness and ability to tackle allow the team to align him at the will linebacker position in sub packages, where he has shown the ability to be an extremely effective box defender.

Tackling – 7

  • Always a physical tackler, Edmunds has continued to refine his technique, cleaning up some bad technique as a young player to become an effective tackler both from within the box and in the open field. While he is not the most fluid athlete and can be shaken on a cutback from time to time, Edmunds arrives with proper technique and delivers some physical sticks upon arrival at the point of contact, particularly in defending opponents’ screen game. A true box safety, tackling is undoubtedly the primary strength of Edmunds’ game.

Eyes/Keys/Reads – 5

  • While Terrell Edmunds eye discipline, particularly in man coverage, is solid, he often fails to get his eyes back to locate the ball when in phase, limiting his ability to create splash plays and turnovers at the catch point. In the run game and defending screens, Edmunds does a great job of quickly recognizing and triggering downhill, arriving in the backfield early to generate impactful tackles for losses. This past season, Edmunds had a career high 8 tackles for losses, evidenced to his improving ability to time snap counts and get downhill in a hurry.

Block Destruction – 6

  • Possessing great functional strength, Edmunds does a great job of engaging, extending, and shedding blockers to keep himself clean to make stops in or around the line of scrimmage. Similarly, Edmunds is often able to trigger quickly, making him a tough target for pullers and lead blockers to engage with clean contact, allowing him to knife past them and disrupt plays in the backfield. Overall, Edmunds ability to evade and shed blocks make him an extremely effective box safety.

Man Coverage – 5

  • Serving as the team’s primary cap defender(the secondary player rolling down to replace a blitzing apex defender in man coverage), Edmunds has proven to be effective in man coverage assignments against tight ends and to a lesser degree, slot receivers. While his lack of hip mobility makes it tough for him to break in phase with quicker slot receivers, Edmunds does a great job of staying square and staying disciplined with his eyes too close to the catch point and either contest the catch or make sound tackles to limit yards after the catch. Against tight ends, Edmunds has proven to be a great matchup, where his superior physicality allows him to disrupt tight ends, and force them off their landmarks, disrupting timing and chemistry between the big targets and their quarterbacks.

Zone Coverage – 5

  • While Edmunds has proven to be an effective zone coverage defender, his lack of range limits his versatility in assignments, as he is not a particularly effective post safety. While the team will deploy him in this capacity at times to help diversify Minkah Fitzpatrick’s alignment and assignment, he is best suited as a deep ½ safety or in underneath zone assignments. As a SCF(seam->curl->flat) defender in Cover 3 assignments, Edmunds does a great job of occupying intermediate throwing windows and forcing checkdowns, where he is able to close to the ball and make sound tackles in the open field to limit yards after the catch.

Flexibility – 4

  • Edmunds lack of hip mobility is one of the primary factors which limits him from being an elite safety in coverage, as his inability to quickly transition his hips often puts him into a trailing position, leaving him unable to turn and locate the ball at the catch point. Thus, despite his solid long speed, which clocked at a 4.47 at the 2018 scouting combine, Edmunds can often allow separation on quick in and out breaking routes, where he is unable to change direction and stay in phase to adequately contest the catch point, making him more of a catch/tackle guy in coverage.

Strength – 7

  • Edmunds strength is a key component to his ability to function so effectively from within the box. Often in the Steelers goal line package, Edmunds finds himself aligned as the overhang defender on the line of scrimmage, where his raw athleticism and strength allow him to take on pullers and disrupt plays in the backfield, most notably on a 2020 goal line sequence just before half against Baltimore in Week 12. Likewise, Edmunds raw play strength allows him to generate some big sticks when coming downhill, particularly against the screen game, where he has a knack for triggering early, knifing past oncoming blockers and punishing pass catchers before they can turn upfield.

Speed – 6

  • Clocking a 4.47 at the combine, Edmunds play speed is largely reflective of his testing numbers, and helps allow him to effectively close to contest the catch point and limit explosive plays in coverage despite his notable lack of hip mobility. Similarly, his solid speed and burst allow him to track down ball carriers from the backside when aligned within the box, punishing opposing teams for leaving him out of the blocking scheme. While not a game breaking trait, Edmunds speed is more than adequate for the NFL level, and has undoubtedly helped make him an effective box safety alongside Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Strengths (Does Best)

  • Edmunds greatest strengths as a player are his raw athletic tools, toughness, and tackling ability, which combine to help make him an extremely effective player within the box, making him a solid compliment to All-Pro post safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. While he rarely creates turnovers, Edmunds ability to effectively man both underneath zone assignments and blitz capping assignments in man coverage help the Steelers coaching staff maximize Minkah’s impact in the defense. Similarly, his ability to effectively align both as a deep safety as well as an Apex defender and within the box as a quasi-linebacker allows the team to effectively defend the run against teams who are a threat to run out of 11-personnel sets.

Weaknesses (Improve On)

  • Edmunds lack of hip mobility and overall feel in coverage are his two biggest weaknesses, consistently putting him into trailing position on downfield targets and leaving him unable to contest the catch point on quick game concepts. Similarly, his lack of ability to generate turnovers and make plays at the catch point, with just 5 interceptions and 21 passes defended in his four year career limits his overall impact in the Steelers secondary. Nonetheless, he plays his role well and does enough to unlock turnover creation from Minkah Fitzpatrick, which should certainly not be discounted when factoring his impact.

Tre Norwood

Toughness (Physical + Mental) -5

  • An element of his game that I, among others, questioned coming out of Oklahoma, where he showed little to no interest in tackling, was his overall toughness. Nonetheless, Norwood came in as a rookie and carved out a role in the Steelers defense in large part due to his willingness to play with physicality and sacrifice his body to make tackles, both after the catch and in the run game. His ability to come downhill and finish full speed through ball carriers, many of whom significantly outweighed him, was a large part of what made him an effective sub package player in the Pittsburgh defense.

Tackling – 5

  • Norwood completely surprised me as a tackler this past season, showing both the proper technique and physicality as a tackler, particularly on third down where he made plenty of key stops throughout the season. He finished the season with 38 tackles, 32 of which were of the solo variety and a pair of which came behind the line of scrimmage, all while starting just three games. In the run game in particular, Norwood showed great effort in knifing past oncoming blockers and sacrificing his body to prevent runs from reaching the second and third levels. When tackling the catch, Norwood consistently took great angles, tracking the near hip and finishing with great form tackles to eliminate any opportunity for yards after the catch. A massive question mark coming out of college, Norwood has presumably carved out a meaningful sub package role moving forward in large part due to his newfound willingness as a tackler.

Eyes/Keys/Reads – 5

  • Always a strength of his game, Norwood’s ability to use pre snap reads to trigger quickly against opponents run and screen game was apparent as a rookie, particularly in an early season Sunday Night game vs Seattle, where he repeatedly blew up screen plays at or around the line of scrimmage. In man coverage, Norwood does a great job of getting his eyes to the quarterback when he is in phase with his man, allowing him to come off and help make open field stops on the intended target. When in phase at the catch point, Norwood does a great job of getting his eyes back to locate the football and play the ball, evidenced by his four passes defended in limited playing time as a rookie. He got caught with his eyes in the backfield in his first career start against Justin Herbert, but overall, Norwood’s eye discipline was rock solid as a rookie.

Block Destruction – 4

  • Also a massive weakness of his game exiting the collegiate level, Norwood showed improvement in the block shedding department as a rookie, triggering quickly and using his mobility to knife under blockers and stay clean to make tackles. While he can struggle when larger players are able to work into his lean frame, Norwood’s showed a knack for contorting his body and creating angles where blockers could not legally get into his frame, allowing him to knife into the backfield and get involved in the action. Continued development of his strength should help him improve in this department moving forward.

Man Coverage – 6

  • Exiting the collegiate level with some experience both at the slot and boundary cornerback positions, Norwood has a natural feel in man coverage. He does a great job of reacting quickly when receivers break, using smooth transitions to stay in phase and play the catch point despite his lack of top end speed and athleticism. Norwood’s ability to consistently plaster slot receivers in man coverage makes him an ideal candidate for the Steelers sub packages, where Tomlin and company love to bring pressure and play Cover 1 man sets to force quarterbacks to repeatedly make throws into tight windows.

Zone Coverage – 5

  • A primary strength of his game exiting the collegiate level, Norwood largely performed well in zone coverage assignments as a rookie, particularly in underneath zone assignments where he showed a great understanding of route concepts, occupying intermediate throwing windows and forcing checkdowns. When forced to play as a post safety and deep 1/2 defender, his lack of range was exposed a bit, suggesting that he might be best suited to be deployed closer to the line of scrimmage in sub package situations as his career progresses. Similar to Cameron Sutton, even as a young player, Norwood’s feel for the game and understanding of coverage concepts are evident on tape, and I expect him to trend toward making more splash plays as his reps increase.

Flexibility – 5

  • While he doesn’t possess world class hips, Norwood’s flexibility, particularly given his quick processing ability, is good enough to function at the NFL level. In man coverage, he showed the ability to transition from a backpedal into a crossover run quickly to carry routes vertically, a necessary skill to disguise his deficiencies in the long speed department.

Strength – 4

  • While his hit power certainly improved due to his ability to trigger downhill rapidly and willingness to sacrifice his body, Norwood’s lack of play strength was evident at times when attempting to tackle larger framed players in the open field. Currently listed at 6’0” 194 pounds, his first full offseason should provide the ideal circumstances for Norwood to continue filling out his frame and gaining strength ahead of his sophomore campaign.

Speed – 4

  • His 4.58 40 yard dash is certainly true to his play speed and can allow players to burst past him even when he has taken a proper angle in the open field from time to time. A Sunday night road contest against the Chargers exposed his lack of long speed and ultimately showed why he is best suited playing closer to the line of scrimmage in sub packages rather than as a deep safety, where he lacks the proper range to function at a high level in the league.

Strengths (Does Best)

  • Tre Norwood’s ability to function at a high level in coverage, both in man coverage and underneath zone coverage assignments are his primary strength, helping make him an extremely effective sub package defender. Similarly his instincts, understanding of coverage concepts, and ability to effectively read offenses pre and post snap consistently put him in the proper position to make impact plays. Likewise, his versatility, and experience playing in the slot, on the boundary, at both safety positions, as well as his experience as a dimebacker this past season make him a valuable swiss army knife for the coaching staff while also providing great depth at multiple spots.

Weaknesses (Improve On)

  • Tre Norwood’s overall athletic limitations are the biggest weakness of his game. Given his instincts, ball skills, and newfound tackling ability, Norwood has all of the traits to be a legitimate starter at the NFL level outside of raw athletic tools. Likewise, his ceiling is likely as a top end sub package player, which regardless can provide massive value to any team in its own right.

Damontae Kazee

Toughness (Physical + Mental) – 6

  • First displaying great mental toughness in making a full transition from the cornerback position as a collegiate athlete to his current safety position at the NFL level, Kazee showed great resiliency and willingness to change his role. Moreover, throughout his career, Kazee has shown the willingness to fill the alley with bad intentions, producing some huge hits both in run support as well as when arriving at the catch point. Given his ability to provide an enforcing presence on the backend, Kazee should ultimately serve as a great compliment to a backend which already includes Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds, potentially warranting some three safety looks.

Tackling – 7

  • A strength ever since his collegiate days, Kazee has proven to be both an extremely effective tackler at the NFL level as well as a player with great hit power. His combination of proper technique and physicality at the point of contact make him an extremely effective tackler both in the open field and in the box. Likewise, Kazee has shown a nose for the football throughout his NFL career, forcing 7 fumbles, with at least one in every one of his five NFL seasons. In Kazee, the Steelers have added a sure tackler who will help bring an enforcing presence to an already physical backend of their defense.

Eyes/Keys/Reads – 6

  • Similar to Minkah Fitzpatrick, throughout his NFL career, Kazee has shown a propensity for making “right place/right time” plays, producing plenty of turnovers, including his 2018 season in which he led the NFL with seven interceptions. When deployed as a deep ½ or post safety, Kazee does a great job of staying patient and allowing routes to develop in front of him, keeping himself in position to capitalize on tipped balls and overthrown targets in the intermediate area of the field. Similarly, he has shown great concentration downfield and is consistently able to contort his body to secure tough interceptions on unpredictable tipped balls.

Block Destruction – 4

  • Primarily playing as a post safety throughout his NFL career, Kazee has rarely been accounted for in opposing teams blocking schemes, rather often being assigned as an unblocked alley defender. Regardless, listed at just 174 pounds, Kazee’s lack of ideal size for the safety position can allow him to get overpowered by larger framed players if they are able to get into his chest.

Man Coverage – 5

  • Once again, while he is rarely deployed in man coverage assignments at the NFL level given his position and role, Kazee, a former collegiate cornerback, has the necessary hip flexibility, suddenness out of his breaks, and route recognition to function at a high level in man coverage assignments. Likewise, his ability to consistently highpoint jump ball targets makes him extremely effective at the catch point, even against larger framed players. Regardless, his lack of arm length, listed at 30 ⅞” and long speed(4.54 40 time) can make it tough for him to stay in phase with speedier receivers downfield, as well as limiting his effectiveness in playing the pocket from out of phase.

Zone Coverage – 6

  • With 12 interceptions in his five year NFL career, most of which have come with Kazee aligned as the post safety in either Cover 1 or Cover 3 schemes, he has a natural feel as a post safety. Similarly, Kazee does a great job of driving and finishing through pass catchers to separate them from the football at the point of contact. His combination of route recognition, ball skills, and physicality make him extremely effective in zone coverage assignments.

Flexibility – 6

  • A former collegiate cornerback, Kazee has great hip mobility for the safety position at the NFL level. Given his stature as an undersized safety, he uses his route recognition and hip mobility to beat players to spots and use his high point ability in coverage. Similarly, Kazee is adept at the speed turn(also known as the baseball turn) which helps him recover on occasions when he is beaten across his face. His flexible hips are a massive strength to his game as an undersized safety.

Strength – 5

  • While his play strength is not quite elite, Kazee’s fearless nature when coming downhill has helped make him one of the hardest hitting safeties across the league. Regardless of his lack of size, Kazee has shown the ability to finish through ball carriers and pass catchers when coming downhill, often separating them from the football and generating turnovers. While he is far from the strongest safety in the league, it is certainly not a weakness of his game.

Speed – 4

  • Clocking at a 4.54 40 time coming out of college, Kazee’s play speed is largely reflective of his testing time. Regardless, his instincts allow him to trigger quickly, often allowing him to mask his lack of top end speed when closing to the catch point. Nonetheless, Kazee will predictably struggle when forced into a footrace against the league’s faster receivers.

Strengths (Does Best)

  • Kazeee’s physicality, instincts, and ball skills are undoubtedly his biggest strengths at this juncture of his career. In total, between forced fumbles and interceptions, Kazee has produced a healthy 19 turnovers in just five NFL seasons. This past season with Dallas, he forced a pair of fumbles while securing a pair of interceptions in 15 starts. Moreover, both in Atlanta and Dallas, Kazee has consistently provided a physical presence on the backend of his defense, a trait which he should immediately bring once inserted into the Steeelers defense this upcoming fall.

Weaknesses (Improve On)

  • Kazee’s frame and lack of top end athleticism are his biggest weaknesses as a player, limiting his ability to generate even more splash plays despite his elite instincts and physicality. That being said, Kazee has certainly maximized his impact given his lack of stature and speed, and should continue to do so in whatever capacity he is ultimately deployed in Pittsburgh.
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