The in-season acquisition of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick was under heavy scrutiny at first. Fans questioned if Fitzpatrick would have a big enough impact to offset a potential top-10 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Since his start in Week 3, Fitzpatrick has made one thing very clear: he is worth that first-round pick and more.
Pittsburgh Steelers Rolling Thanks to Minkah Magic
There’s no denying the top of the Steelers’ schedule was brutal. Pittsburgh opened the season with a crushing defeat at the hands of the dominant New England Patriots, followed by a nail-biting loss to the Seattle Seahawks. The losing tour ended with a West Coast road trip where the San Francisco 49ers delivered the Steelers their third consecutive loss.
The Pittsburgh defense was barely scraping by. According to Week 3 DVOA data, the Steelers had a defensive efficiency rate of 21.3 percent, ranked 26th in the league and 30th for overall team efficiency. That’s out of 32 teams: third worst in a world that the Miami Dolphins, Cincinnati Bengals, and Washington Redskins all exist.
Fast forward to Week 5 of the regular season. The Steelers found themselves down a quarterback once after Mason Rudolph had to be escorted off the field with a major concussion. It was showtime for the Steelers defense up against a uniquely powerful Baltimore Ravens offense led by Lamar Jackson. The defense came away with three interceptions and held the Ravens to their smallest lead of the season. It was an all-out battle for both teams as the clock ran into overtime.
A 46-yard field goal from Justin Tucker, the best kicker in the league, secured the win for Baltimore. Despite the loss, Pittsburgh’s ability to go toe-to-toe with an offense that has proven to be the powerhouse of this season was the beginning of a new or maybe not-so-new era of defensive play. Fans are already hailing this transformation as a return to a defensive golden age. Could this young defense be the ‘Steel Curtain’ of a new age?
Welcome Back to ‘Blitz’-burgh
This Pittsburgh team was plagued by injuries and roster shake-ups early in the season. As dramatic as football season can be many were already looking to the future. A 2020 first-round draft pick could be a huge tool for the future of this franchise that needed a reset. When news broke that the Steelers had given up a first-round pick in the 2020 draft for Minkah Fitzpatrick, the second-year safety out of Miami, fans questioned if he would be worth the loss of a potential top-10 pick.
Fitzpatrick put all of those questions to bed Sunday night against the Los Angeles Rams at home in Heinz Stadium. The energy was electric as fans watched the Pittsburgh defense dominate the Rams offense. The Steelers gave the Rams a true ‘Blitz’burgh welcome denying them an offensive touchdown the entire game. The last time the Rams were held like this was their December 9th matchup against the Chicago Bears last season.
The trade for Fitzpatrick back in Week 2 wasn’t a quick fix but over the weeks he’s proven he is the man to revolutionize this defense. The in-season acquisition of Fitzpatrick brought with it huge reductions in yards allowed and boosts in defensive DVOA rankings. Week 9 data has Pittsburgh tied with the Denver Broncos and the Los Angeles Rams for the third-best defense in the league. From 21.3 percent back in week three to a competitive -8.8 percent defensive efficiency rating is a huge leap.
Fans who once questioned his impact are singing his praises as this defensive renaissance continues to take shape. Fitzpatrick is the only player to have at least one interception in three consecutive games since Pittsburgh royalty Troy Polamalu. A new hope is growing behind this young defensive scheme. This could be the beginning of another golden age for the black and yellow defense.
They’re Just Getting Started
There’s been a huge focus on the youth movement on the offensive side of the ball out in Pittsburgh with stand out young guns like Juju Smith-Shuster and James Conner putting on a show last season. Now, we are seeing a resurgence on the defensive end led by incredibly strong and young talent in the back end. TJ Watt, 25, Devin Bush, 21, and Minkah Fitzpatrick, 22, are some of the most lethal weapons the Steelers have on the field and they’re just getting started.
Sunday’s showing highlighted this defense’s ability to pressure the quarterback. According to Laura Okmin’s coverage of the game for Fox Sports, it’s not opposing offenses that this Steelers team is preparing for. Okmin took to Twitter to explain Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree’s defensive mentality. So how does this defense prepare if they’re not solely focused on the offense?
“We want to be the best defense in the stadium,” said Dupree. For this defense they must measure up against their opposing defense and past Steeler defenses, that is the true benchmark. It’s this mentality combined with a raw power coming out of the defensive end that is turning the Steeler season around.
Can They Keep It Up?
The great news for Steelers fans is that this team has been able to find some serious strengths amid a brutal schedule and injury melodrama. What’s coming next should be a great relief for the Pittsburgh franchise. This second half of their schedule doesn’t present too many challenges ahead.
Over the next six weeks, their toughest opponent is shaping up to be the Buffalo Bills on December 15th. They will face the Cleveland Browns twice in the meantime. It’s no secret that the Browns franchise is their own worst opponent. Also in the onslaught are the Cincinnati Bengals and the Arizona Cardinals who both hold the last place positions for their respective divisions.
This team could be the comeback threat of the season. The true test will come on December 29th when this Steelers defense travels to Baltimore for what can only be called a redemption match.
From a November 11, 2019 report for Last Word on Sports: NFL.