PITTSBURGH — More than 45 minutes after practice on an August day at St. Vincent College, Minkah Fitzpatrick was still on the field.
The on-field portion of training camp was over for the day, but the Pittsburgh Steelers defense still had work to do. Methodically, he worked with the staff catching dozens of balls from every angle.
,[Defensive backs] Coach Grady Brown, he says all the time, ‘We’re getting as DBs. “We should have a 100% catch rate, but we’re catching almost 100% fewer passes than the receiver is catching,” said Fitzpatrick, sweat dripping as he caught his breath.
“Whether the receiver is straight or deflected or getting two catches at the same time is important. I think it’s important to get your hands used to protecting the ball.”
Over his shoulder, left, right, over and over until he’s satisfied with the reps.
But Fitzpatrick is rarely satisfied. That drives him back to the football field and the Steelers practice facility every day, arriving early and leaving late. That’s the kind of leader the Steelers need in the wake of DJ Watt’s pectoral injury to threaten their season.
For the Steelers to survive at least a month without Watt — including Thursday night’s game against the Cleveland Browns (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video) — Fitzpatrick will need to be a focal point as both a leader and a bowler. , making splash plays to infuse the defense with infectious energy.
“Minka is a fierce competitor,” coach Mike Tomlin said during training camp. “… He always wants to be inside. He wants to hide the receipts. He likes to tackle running backs. He wants to explode. He is a football player. He is a boy who loves football. He’s a guy who loves competition, and boy, he’s a really good guy to be in an environment like this because there’s never a day with him. He’s always about it. He is always ready to work.
From the minute the Steelers gave up an unprecedented first-round pick to take Alabama’s lead from Miami, Fitzpatrick delivered. The Steelers hoped Fitzpatrick, who won two national titles in three years, could be the anchor of the secondary — the next iteration of feared defensive linemen like Troy Polamalu. San Francisco 49ers. The picks piled up as he connected in five of his first seven games that season.
“He’s vocal, he’s intense, he’s a big-time player and he’s been since the day we bought him on a short week of going to San Francisco,” Tomlin said. “He was vocal that week.”
Fitzpatrick had four interceptions in 2021, but his responsibilities have changed and his role has largely depended on stopping the run. He finished with 124 tackles in his career.
But after making him the highest-paid NFL safety this offseason with a 4-year, $73.6 million contract, the Steelers wanted Fitzpatrick back to his ballhawking ways in 2022.
“Guys like him, they want to be the best. They want to win every game,” defensive coordinator Daryl Austin said during training camp. … He sees the game faster than a lot of guys I’ve seen. And Ed Reed is the best person I’ve ever had the ability to work with. (He was Austin Reed’s position coach with the Ravens in 2011-12) He saw the game faster than anyone I played with there.
“That’s a unique trait that makes those guys great. We’ve got to get him back to get turnovers.
In two games, Fitzpatrick is doing exactly that.
On his second defensive play of the season, Fitzpatrick read Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and jumped in front of receiver Tyler Boyd. Fitzpatrick snagged the ball and raced back 31 yards to the end zone for a pick-six. Later, he forced overtime by blocking an extra point attempt as time expired. Against the Patriots, he forced Mack Jones to throw over the middle to DeVante Parker, who had a significant advantage matching up with inside linebacker Robert Spillane. Fitzpatrick rocketed toward Parker to intercept Jones’ pass.
What makes Fitzpatrick such a threat is his versatility and ability to play all over the field. It was something he initially resisted in Miami, but he found he was more than capable of that role in Pittsburgh.
“I feel like if people know where I’m at, they don’t go there or they plan something to get away from me,” Fitzpatrick said. “But I think it’s moving me to take myself to different positions — I don’t mean every play — but give the offense a different look.”
For all the electricity Fitzpatrick brings to the field with his play, he remains quiet in the locker room. He’s one of the more trash-talkers of the group, but in his day-to-day life, Fitzpatrick keeps to himself when it comes to his routine.
“He always comes with his bag and notes ready to write,” said Najee Harris, who has known Fitzpatrick since he was 18 and was his teammate at Alabama. “… He’s really invested in football. … He is always here till 7pm, I come here late, he always comes later than me.
Fitzpatrick works late because he is a perfectionist and a competitor. Harris said the most impressive thing about Fitzpatrick is his dedication to his craft.
“I don’t think being a perfectionist on the football field is a bad thing,” Fitzpatrick said. “I feel like I learn from my mistakes. I don’t dwell on them.
“…I’ve always been that way, but I’ve trained myself to be that way. … People hold me to a high standard because I hold myself to a high standard. They tested me for anything less.”
Although he is not officially the captain-elect, that combination makes him a natural leader. Cornerback Levi Wallace, who played with Fitzpatrick at Alabama, said he, one of his closest friends, voted for Fitzpatrick as captain along with Cam Heyward and DJ Watt.
“Whether he goes out for the coin task or not, everyone knows he’s one of the leaders on the team,” Wallace said. “We know who he is and what he does for this team. The way he leads, he doesn’t have to talk a lot. It’s all about his actions. When you have a guy like that, he’s always pushing you, not trying to push you. You want to work hard because he works hard.
Now, the goal is to help fill the void left by Watt. But if Fitzpatrick continues to play at the level he started this season, he could earn a major individual honor.
“The best players, they’re going to go out there and play well,” safety Terrell Edmonds said. “He’s going to go out there and put his best foot forward. If he keeps having the kind of plays he did (against Bengal), I know he can, and he’ll definitely be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year.”