The Pittsburgh Steelers finished with a much-improved run defense that was their disaster in 2021, ending this season 7th in yards per carry against, ninth in yards per game allowed, and giving up only seven touchdowns, tied for the fewest in the league.
But you didn’t need all those stats to know the run defense got a lot better. You only needed one. Minkah Fitzpatrick’s tackles.
In 2021, he had to do it all. And did do it all. 124 tackles, the most ever by a Steelers’ defensive back in recorded, tracked history. It wasn’t a stat to celebrate. It was indicative of a front seven cut through like a knife through butter, routinely allowing 200 yards and giving up chunk play after chunk play. Fitzpatrick wasn’t the team’s playmaker. He was their janitor, cleaning up all the messes.
Against the run last season, Fitzpatrick made a whopping 67 tackles against the run, tied for 25th league-wide and the most by any defensive back in the NFL in 2021 (or tied, if you consider Carolina’s Jeremy Chinn a DB, a hybrid player who also had 67). 43 of those for Fitzpatrick were solo stops, also the most. A safety with a bunch of tackles is like a NBA center with a bunch of offensive rebounds. It’s better than not having rebounds but it means your teammates are missing a ton of shots. Far from ideal.
2022 was different. For Fitzpatrick and for the front seven. Healthier with better and more proven depth, Pittsburgh’s front wasn’t a mess. Larry Ogunjobi ran hot-and-cold but made splash plays while the inside linebackers weren’t as bad as 2021 and the unit was far more assignment-sound, their biggest issue that led them to having the 32nd-ranked run defense. Fitzpatrick finished this season with just 96 total tackles, more than one less tackle per game compared to a year ago. Only 50 tackles came against the run. Instead of being 25th in the league, that ranked tied for 81st overall, a far prettier figure overall for what’s supposed to be a free safety.
It’s difficult to draw a direct line but the difference in tackles likely created a difference in Fitzpatrick’s turnovers. He made plays on the football in 2021 but ended the year with just two interceptions, tied for the lowest in his career. With run defense less of a demand, he ended 2022 with a career-high six interceptions on the way to his third Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection. Certainly, game circumstances played a role. Instead of opposing offenses running at will, they had to throw the ball. They were in more third-and-long situations and Fitzpatrick had more chances to impact the passing game.
For 2023, a similar figure to 2022 would be preferred. Hover around six tackles per game, roughly 50 run stops, and it’ll likely mean the run defense had another fine year. Make no mistake, Fitzpatrick is a strong tackler, it’s an underrated aspect of the game, but it shouldn’t be the bulk of his game as it was in 2021. His numbers reflect the strength – or weakness – of the front seven and hopefully the front will continue its sturdy ways.