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Jun. 10—This week at Steelers organized team activities, All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick was asked about the prospect of his role in the 2021 defense and if it will change much from his first two All-Pro seasons in Pittsburgh.
"I don't think too much is going to change," Fitzpatrick replied. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Fair enough. Good answer. Actually, it's one I expected last offseason when he was asked the same question. But he gave a different response.
In February 2020, Fitzpatrick told ESPN.com, "When you move around and you're a moving piece on the chessboard, it's hard to defend and you can't just say, 'All right, the quarterback is going to look at me and say he's going to be in this spot every snap,' like I was last year. It's going to be harder and it's going to be more difficult to take me out of the game."
That was because Fitzpatrick felt his second-half dip in turnover production was partially due to quarterbacks avoiding the deep middle of the field because they didn't want to attack his coverage area.
I'm sure that was partially true. However, as we documented at the time, in six of the eight Steelers turnovers Fitzpatrick was part of in 2019, the opposing quarterback wasn't coming at him to begin with, or the ball was fumbled.
Sure, Fitzpatrick's elite instincts contributed toward him being able to cash in those opportunities. But how often those opportunities manifest in the first place is random. As evidence, look at how he was blanked in the turnover department the last five weeks of 2019, after gobbling up eight in his first nine weeks in Black and Gold.
That's why I endorsed the notion of leaving Fitzpatrick primarily as a deep safety entrusted to patrol the back third of the defense, acting as a deterrent to opposing offenses that might want to try a lot of deep balls. That premise may not show up in the box score, but it's certainly a positive for coordinator Keith Butler's defense.
Look at 2020. Fitzpatrick's turnover total dipped to six in 16 games, and he was shut out in the turnover department the last six weeks. He only had four interceptions all year, and two were against Jacksonville Jaguars backup Jake Luton.
Yet Fitzpatrick remained an All-Pro. So being an eraser in the back third of the defense was still a valuable commodity for the Steelers.
However, the question of moving Fitzpatrick around more often this year strikes me as a more relevant point of debate than it did a season ago. Here's why.
Including last year's playoff loss to the Cleveland Browns, the Steelers only forced four total turnovers over the last six weeks — two each in a loss to the Buffalo Bills and in a win against the Indianapolis Colts.
So, in four of those five losses down the stretch for the Steelers, they had a zero in the takeaway column. While the team still ranked second in the NFL in turnovers with 27, that was down from the NFL-leading total of 38 in 2019.
The reason for that? Well, Steven Nelson and Joe Haden each missed a game or two down the stretch. Mike Hilton was in uniform but was battling through a mid-season injury that kept him sidelined. And the team was without Bud Dupree and Devin Bush for much of the last third of the season due to ACL injuries.
Here's the problem: Dupree, Hilton and Nelson are off the roster entirely now because of free agency. And Bush admits he's still no more than 80-90% back from his surgery.
As the videos we provided in the link above show, a lot of Fitzpatrick's turnovers were the result of his nose for the football, sniffing out plays that were started by other guys. Pressure on the quarterback. Bush's pursuit. Tipped balls. Etc.
With Hilton's blitz capabilities and Dupree's pass-rush skills gone, the ball may not come out of the quarterback's hand as rushed or as panicked. Then factor in Bush's diluted impact until he is 100% healthy and subtract Nelson's coverage skills.
It's a different roster. Therefore, maybe it's time for a different conversation.
The Steelers may need to be more creative in deploying Fitzpatrick in 2021 because he may need to do more individually — and from different spots — to create turnovers. As the numbers indicate, when takeaways dry up, there's a significant negative impact on team-wide results.
Maybe Fitzpatrick covers from the slot a bit more often. Maybe he drops down into the second level of the field to get closer to the ball on occasion. Who knows? Maybe a surprise blitz or two if you really want to go out on a limb.
Obviously, the next big question that comes out of that conversation though is, "If Fitzpatrick comes out of the deep middle of the field, who covers up for him?"
That answer is the same as last year: "Er ... Um ... I'm not sure." Which is why the Steelers need to be judicious if they decide to turn Fitzpatrick into more of a "chess piece" this year.
This is why I still default to the premise that, generally speaking, Fitzpatrick is right. His role ain't broke. So don't try to fix it.
But a slight tune-up from the Steelers — given the erosion of some of the other parts on defense — may not be a bad idea.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at email@example.com or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.