On offense, one star in a group of 11 can make all the difference. Even if it’s not the quarterback, if a team has an elite running back or an elite wide receiver, at times, they can take over and still have success—even if the group around them might not be up to par.
It doesn’t exactly work like that on defense. If you have an elite pass rusher or an elite shutdown corner, sometimes they can really impact the game by themselves. But, for the most part, even with a great player at either of those spots, offenses can typically just game plan to neutralize the impact any one player can have.
On defense, it really does take all three levels of the field working together to be productive. A one-man difference-maker on defense doesn’t point to stats as the element that proves they’re a difference-maker; it’s that the fact that their presence elevates the other 10 players on the field so much so that the team stats improve across the board.
That’s exactly what happened when the Pittsburgh Steelers traded for Minkah Fitzpatrick last season.
Fitzpatrick, the former No. 11 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft had been butting heads with the Miami Dolphins’ brass for quite a while before the trade. The root of that conflict was Fitzpatrick’s use on the field.
Fitzpatrick came into the NFL billed as one of the most versatile defensive players in the 2018 draft class. In Nick Saban’s Alabama defense, Fitzpatrick played free safety, strong safety, outside cornerback, nickel cornerback, and even had some linebacker responsibilities, at times.
The Dolphins saw that versatility and fell in love, but you can’t play every position every down. Eventually, you have to commit to a main role. The Dolphins did that, but Fitzpatrick believed they chose the incorrect one.
“[Miami] played me real close to the line of scrimmage, sometimes on the line of scrimmage, in the box playing the linebacker/strong safety type guy”, Fitzpatrick said. “In practice, I was doing the same. I wasn’t really doing coverage; I was just taking on blockers and just learning how to adjust to different run schemes and stuff like that. And it was good and all, but I just didn’t think he was maximizing my skill set.”
This went on long enough that there was a breaking point. That breaking point came to a head when the Dolphins shipped Fitzpatrick off to Pittsburgh for a 2020 first-round pick just two years after Miami spent a first-round pick to get him. For the Dolphins, not bad for trying to return something past the 30-day return policy. For the Steelers, that price tag was absolutely worth it.
Before Fitzpatrick arrived in Pittsburgh, the Steelers allowed 320 passing yards per game in their first two games of the season. With Fitzpatrick in their lineup, they allowed just 176.7 passing yards per game the rest of the season. For further evidence, pre-Fitzpatrick, the Steelers’ defense gave up 30.5 points per game, 125 rushing yards per game, and had a point differential of minus-32. With Fitzpatrick, the defense allowed 17.3 points per game, 107.4 rushing yards per game, and had a point differential of plus-18.
The Steelers also led the league with 38 takeaways last season. Fitzpatrick was a heavy contributor to that with five interceptions, one forced fumble, and two fumble recoveries. A big reason for that—in contrast to his lack of production in Miami—is because the Steelers saw him as a different player than the one the Dolphins tried to deploy.
“When I came to Pittsburgh, they immediately just plugged me into the free safety spot and said, ‘this is going to maximize your skill set by playing you back here’”, Fitzpatrick said. “‘You’re an instinctive guy, you have range, you’re athletic and you go and get the ball, you like being around the ball. And we think that free safety is going to maximize that skill set.’”
Instincts over the middle are a highly coveted trait. It’s why you see single-high type safeties get prioritized in the draft. If you have range and recognition, the good defensive coordinators will find a way to build their back end around the ground you can cover and the impact you can have.
The play above is one of many examples of what Fitzpatrick can do when you allow him to focus on the quarterback while in space on the back end. Fitzpatrick understands how to cut routes and bait quarterbacks. That stuff tends to happen less when you don’t put him in the position to be able to do that.
Over the course of his first seven games with the Steelers, Fitzpatrick notched seven takeaways in the form of interceptions and fumble recoveries. He should have had another one in the play above. Eventually, teams got wise and just stopped throwing his way, as Fitzpatrick was only targeted seven times in the last eight games, per Mark Madden.
Turnovers are not the only way to judge how successful Fitzpatrick is when allowed to roam as a free safety. When you let him freelance and read the offense, you get results like the one above, where he flies all the way across the field to break a pass up. This play happened because Fitzpatrick was put in the position to see the field as a whole.
Fitzpatrick yielded just a 46.3 passer rating over the course of his 14 games in Pittsburgh. For context on how good that is, Stephon Gilmore, who won Defensive Player of the Year in 2019, allowed a passer rating of 44.1.
When you allow Fitzpatrick to sit back and scan the entire field, you allow him to truly elevate the rest of the defense.
Take the play above as an example. In that play, the Steelers had the Ravens offense in a dangerous spot up against their own end zone. The Ravens, who are already a strong running team, were likely just going to hand the ball off. In order to counter their heavier trench on that play, the Steelers had to occupy extra defenders in the box. Anytime you do that, you likely have to make sacrifices in coverage. But when you have a player like Fitzpatrick on the back end, you have that kind of freedom.
As seen above, it made all the difference.
Fitzpatrick leading the NFL in takeaways in 2019 had plenty of luck. A handful of his turnovers were him being in the right spot at the right time and the ball bouncing his way. Even though it is luck, you still have to be around the ball and in position to capitalize when luck finds favor with you—luck can’t do both on its own.
Fitzpatrick constantly puts himself in positions on the field where his presence can have the most impact. In fact, him just being on the field is a big part of what made Pittsburgh’s defense one of the best in 2019.
- Dec 01, 2022
- Nov 30, 2022