2021 wasn’t the year the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense envisioned. They dealt with injuries, rookies struggling, and overall below-the-line play. Sure, the pass rush still got home and T.J. Watt won Defensive Player of the Year, but the defense disappointed across the board. While Minkah Fitzpatrick was low on the list of problems, even he admits how tough of a year it was for him, trying to make up for what the front seven lacked.
He talked about how the 2021 season hurt him – literally – while appearing on the Varsity House Podcast that aired Wednesday afternoon.
“I ain’t gonna lie, I ain’t gonna lie,” he told the show. “This is probably like, not mentally, but physically, this is probably the toughest season that I had. Just from the type of the type of game we were playing this year as a defense. It was a real physical game. I think I had 132 tackles as a free safety. That doesn’t doesn’t happen too often. And I wasn’t used to that. So my body was beat up bad after the season.”
It was physical alright. But mostly with the other team imposing their will on the Steelers’ defense, the polar opposite of what Pittsburgh is accustomed to. It was the Steelers’ worst run defense season ever, 1933 to today, allowing 5.0 YPC. They gave up multiple 200+ yard rushing performances when a decade ago, even allowing 100 yards on the ground sent the defense to the confessional.
Fitzpatrick bore the brunt of those mistakes in front of him, cleaning up far too many tackles downfield to prevent them from doing any additional damage. We recently put together a cut-up of the eight solo tackles he had on runs that gained 20+ yards. In total, Fitzpatrick made 11 such tackles, easily the most in the league. Not a number you want out of your free safety.
Tackles can vary slightly depending on the source but Pro Football Reference has Fitzpatrick down for 124 combined tackles in 2021. Compare that to just the 79 he had in 2020, playing the same number of games as he did in 2021. It’s the ninth-most tackles by a Steeler since the stat has been officially tracked, and the most by a Steelers’ safety.
Ideally, Fitzpatrick’s tackle numbers dip next season. It’d be the strongest sign the Steelers’ front seven and run defense has improved. That’ll allow Fitzpatrick to make more plays when the ball is in the air, not on the ground, and keep his body fresh for an important stretch run at the end of the season.