PITTSBURGH — More than 45 mins after apply ended on a sweltering August day at Saint Vincent College, Minkah Fitzpatrick was once nonetheless on the box.
The on-box portion of that day’s coaching camp was once over, however the Pittsburgh Steelers protection nonetheless had paintings to do. Methodically, he labored with a staffer catching dozens of balls from each and every attitude.
“[Defensive backs] trainer Grady Brown, he says all of it the time, ‘We are receivers as DBs. We have to have a 100% catch rate, but we catch almost 100% less passes than what the receiver catches,” Fitzpatrick said, sweat dripping as he caught his breath.
“It’s important to get as many catches as the receiver does, whether it be straight on or distracted or the two at once. I think it’s essential to get your arms used to securing the ball.”
Over his shoulder, from his left, from his right, time and again till he was once glad with the reps.
But Fitzpatrick is hardly glad. It’s what helps to keep him returning to the soccer box and the Steelers’ apply facility on a daily basis, arriving early and leaving past due. It’s what makes him the roughly leader the Steelers need in the wake of the T.J. Watt pectoral damage that threatens their season.
For the Steelers to live on a minimum of a monthlong stretch with out Watt — together with Thursday night time’s sport towards the Cleveland Browns (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video) — Fitzpatrick should be a point of interest as a leader and a ball hawk, developing the roughly splash performs to infuse the protection with contagious power.
“Minkah is a serious competitor,” trainer Mike Tomlin mentioned right through coaching camp. “… He always wants in. He wants to cover receivers. He wants to tackle running backs. He wants to blitz. He’s a football player. He’s a guy that loves football. He’s a guy that loves competition, and boy, he’s just really a good guy to have in an environment like this because there’s never a down day with him. He’s always about it. He’s always ready to work.”
From the minute the Steelers gave up an exceptional first-spherical select to get the Alabama standout from Miami, Fitzpatrick has delivered. The Steelers believed Fitzpatrick, who received two nationwide titles in 3 years, may well be the anchor of the secondary — the subsequent iteration of feared defensive gamers like Troy Polamalu — and Fitzpatrick replied the bell when he amassed an interception in his debut towards the San Francisco 49ers. The choices got here in bunches that season as he corralled 5 in his first seven video games.
“He’s vocal, he’s intense, he’s a large-time participant and he has been since the day we obtained him on a brief week going into San Francisco,” Tomlin said. “He was vocal that week.”
Fitzpatrick had four interceptions in 2021, but his responsibilities shifted and his role largely hinged on stopping the run. He finished with a career-high 124 tackles.
But after making him the highest-paid NFL safety this offseason with a 4-year, $73.6-million contract, the Steelers wanted to put Fitzpatrick in position to return to his ball-hawking ways in 2022.
“Guys like him, they want to be great,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin mentioned right through coaching camp. “They want to win every play. … He sees the game faster than a lot of people I’ve ever seen. And Ed Reed was the best that I’ve had the ability to work with. (Austin was Reed’s position coach with the Ravens in 2011-12) He saw the game faster than anybody I ever played with back there.
“It’s a unique trait, and that’s what makes those guys great. We’ve just got to get him back to getting the turnovers.”
Two video games in, Fitzpatrick is doing precisely that.
On the 2d defensive play of the season, Fitzpatrick learn Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and leapt in entrance of receiver Tyler Boyd. Fitzpatrick snagged the ball and ran it again 31 yards to the finish zone for a select-six. Then, he compelled additional time via blocking off an additional level try as time expired. Against the Patriots, he baited Mac Jones into throwing over the heart to DeVante Parker, who seemed to have a vital benefit matched up with inside of linebacker Robert Spillane. Fitzpatrick sprung into motion, rocketing towards Parker to intercept Jones’ go.
Part of what makes Fitzpatrick this type of danger is his versatility and talent to play in all places the box. It’s one thing he resisted to start with in Miami, however he discovered he was once most efficient in that function in Pittsburgh.
“I feel like when people know where I’m at they either choose not to go there or they scheme something away from me,” Fitzpatrick mentioned. “But I think moving me around to get me in, in different positions — and I’m not saying every single play — but just give the offense different looks.”
For all the electrical energy Fitzpatrick brings to the box together with his playmaking, he’s quiet in the locker room. He’s amongst the staff’s maximum prolific trash-talkers, however in his day-to-day, Fitzpatrick helps to keep to himself as he is going about his regimen.
“He always comes in with his bag and his notes ready to write,” mentioned operating again Najee Harris, who’s recognized Fitzpatrick since he was once 18 and was once his teammate at Alabama. “… He’s just really invested in football. … He’s always here ’til about 7 p.m. I’m here late, and he’s always here later than me.”
Fitzpatrick works past due as a result of he’s a self-described perfectionist and competitor. Even Harris, who’s a workaholic himself, mentioned the maximum spectacular factor about Fitzpatrick is his dedication to his craft.
“I don’t think being a perfectionist on the football field is a bad thing,” Fitzpatrick mentioned. “I feel like I learn from my mistakes. I don’t dwell on them.
“… I’ve always been like that, but I’ve also been coached to be like that. … People hold me to a high standard because I hold myself to a high standard. And anything short of that, they checked me on it.”
That aggregate makes him a herbal leader, despite the fact that he’s no longer an formally elected captain. Cornerback Levi Wallace, who additionally performed with Fitzpatrick at Alabama and is one in every of his shut buddies, mentioned he voted for Fitzpatrick as a captain together with Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt.
“Everybody knows he’s one of the leaders on the team, whether he walks out there for a coin toss or not,” Wallace mentioned. “We know who he is and what he does for this team. The way he leads, he doesn’t have to talk too much. It’s about his actions. Just having a guy like that, who always just pushes you without even trying to push you. You want to work harder because he’s working so hard.”
Right now, the objective is to lend a hand fill the void left via Watt. But Fitzpatrick may well be in line for a significant person honor if he continues taking part in at the degree he began this season.
“Great players, they’re going to go out there and play great,” protection Terrell Edmunds mentioned. “He’s going to go out there and put his best foot forward. And if he continues to have games like he did [against the Bengals], which I know he can, then definitely he’s going to be up in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year.”