Carrying the league-wide reputation of being a ballhawk in the secondary, Pittsburgh Steelers star safety Minkah Fitzpatrick is expected year after year to put up big numbers from a turnovers perspective. Throughout much of his time in the Steel City with the black and gold, he’s done just that on his way to earning multiple First Team All-Pro and Pro Bowl accolades after coming over from the Miami Dolphins in a trade.
So, it was a bit concerning throughout the 2021 season that Fitzpatrick wasn’t getting his hands on the football and wasn’t providing that splash that the Steelers have become so accustomed to with their star safety. Fitzpatrick recorded just two interceptions, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery in 2021, which were certainly below the expectations he’s set upon himself with his play in recent seasons.
A lot of the issues with the lack of turnovers had to do with what Fitzpatrick was being asked to do defensively for a unit that was getting gashed on the ground by the run game, and was working in some new cornerbacks down the stretch, leading to Fitzpatrick coming downhill a ton to help in run support (career-high 124 tackles), while also being that security blanket over the top.
Observers from the outside might remain a bit concerned about Fitzpatrick’s lack of splash plays last season, but internally the Steelers aren’t concerned, especially head coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.
Speaking with the media Tuesday from Saint Vincent College in Latrobe following practice, Tomlin stated that there was nothing wrong with Fitzpatrick or his ability to create turnovers last season as a lot of it had to do with circumstances the Steelers defense was dealing with.
“Believe me, there is nothing wrong with Minkah or his turnover ability or tally,” Tomlin responded to the media on video at Steelers.com. “Sometimes it’s circumstantial. We didn’t stop the run well enough a year ago. So, if you are looking for something to blame in regards to that or a storyline relative to that, Minkah’s a great football player. There was no lack of production in that area from him.”
The Steelers didn’t stop the run well at all in 2021, finishing dead last in run defense, which was absolutely startling to see. Of course, some of that had to do with the absence of Stephon Tuitt and the season-ending injury to Tyson Alualu suffered six quarters into the season. Fitzpatrick had to do a lot of heavy lifting coming downhill to support against the run, which took him away from his perch in the center field role in the Steelers defense, negating some opportunities to make plays on the football.
Ahead of the 2022 season though, the Steelers are deeper defensively thanks to the return of Alualu, the addition of Larry Ogunjobi and rookie DeMarvin Leal in the trenches and Myles Jack at inside linebacker, as well as Levi Wallace and Damontae Kazee in the secondary as strong run defenders.
With the amount of talent added in front of Fitzpatrick in the Steelers’ defense, there shouldn’t be a need for the star safety to do so much heavy lifting against the run, which should allow him to return to his ball-hawking ways. At least, that’s what Austin is hoping for, he said to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Tim Benz.
“I’d like to see him, as he gets going, really get back to the turnover ways,” Austin said to Benz, according to original reporting from the Tribune-Review. “Really getting back to getting the ball away from people because he has that ability. And that’s a special ability. Not a lot of people have it. So I’d like him to get back to that.
“Last year, we put him in some bad positions in terms of the ball getting on him. And he’s got a lot of open field to cover and tackle guys. We’ve got to make sure (others) do that, so he doesn’t have so many saves to make,” Austin added.
If Fitzpatrick doesn’t have to make so many saves, as Austin says, in 2022, the star safety should be able to get back to his 2019 and 2020 level of play from a turnover perspective. With a new, hefty contract in place and expectations raised, it sure would be nice to see Fitzpatrick flying around making plays at a high level on the football once again.