How will the Steelers utilize Minkah Fitzpatrick moving forward?
The problem with Week 1 of the NFL season is that it is a sample size of only one game. When things occur, either good or bad, it’s uncertain if it is a trend that will end up being the norm or if it was simply an anomaly from a one-game sample.
This is part of the reason why Week 2 of the NFL season really brings perspective on everything that occurred in the first game for each team. With most of the games complete for Week 2 outside of those going on Monday night, there can be a much clearer picture for things. But with the Pittsburgh Steelers being the last game of the week to kickoff against the Cleveland Browns, there are some things that have fans guessing if they will be the exception or the rule.
There are many larger, big picture items when it comes to the Steelers and their one-game sample such as their ability to score points, stop the run, or control the trenches. There are plenty more minute details of the game which will get more perspective once the Steelers face the Browns Monday night at Acrisure Stadium.
One thing in particular which I will be looking to see will be how the Steelers plan to utilize All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick within their secondary.
It is an interesting season for Minkah Fitzpatrick as it will be his first one in Pittsburgh without fellow safety Terrell Edmunds. Although Damontae Kazee was with the Steelers last season, and Keanu Neal brings some of the same style of play is Edmunds more than any other safety, exactly how things play out will evolve more as the sample size of games gets larger.
When looking at week one, how Minkah Fitzpatrick aligned in the Steelers defense is quite interesting. Here are the following snaps by alignment for Fitzpatrick in Week 1 according to Pro Football Focus (PFF):
2023 Week 1
Slot Corner: 13
Wide corner: 8
Free Safety: 28
At first glance, these snaps by position might not stand out one way or the other. Fitzpatrick played more than twice as many snaps at free safety as he did any other position. But where things get interesting is to see how often he played free safety versus the total number of snaps he played.
Seeing 41.2% of his defensive snaps and free safety last week, this was only the third time Fitzpatrick saw less than half his snaps come while being in this particular alignment. The other two games both occurred toward the end of the 2022 season in which Fitzpatrick played 26 of 61 (42.6%) snaps at free safety in Week 14 when the Steelers lost to the Baltimore Ravens, and when he played 20 of 53 (37.7%) of the defensive snaps at free safety in Week 16 in the Steelers win over the Las Vegas Raiders.
To put it into perspective, these are the percentage of snaps where Fitzpatrick was aligned at free safety each season since joining the Steelers in 2019.
But if Fitzpatrick was not lined up as much at free safety in Week 1, what alignment saw an increase compared to where Fitzpatrick usually plays?
The answer for this one is two-fold and actually comes from where Fitpatrick still ended up the least in Week 1. The fact that Minkah Fitzpatrick was listed on the “DLine” for six naps and “Wide Corner” for eight snaps is likely what sent him under the 50% threshold.
Starting with the D-line, Fitzpatrick lined up as an outside linebacker on each side of the Steelers defense three different times to give him a total of six defensive line snaps. When looking at Fitzpatrick in past seasons, he only had two games in 2022 where he lined up on the defensive line more than one time in the game and both of those cases were three times. The 2021 season saw similar numbers with Fitzpatrick only lining up on the D-line in five different games with the most being three in one game. In 2020, Fitzpatrick only did so once a game in four different games.
The 2019 season brings some very interesting numbers. Although Fitzpatrick only lined up on the defensive line in two games once he joined the Steelers and one of those games only had one snap, Minkah Fitzpatrick lined up on the D-line for 17 snaps in his first game with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Obviously his six naps last Sunday was his most since his black-and-gold debut. What is also interesting is that those snaps in 2019 also came against the San Francisco 49ers.
Another position in where Fitzpatrick had an increase in snaps was when he was listed as playing wide corner. In his first three seasons in Pittsburgh, Fitzpatrick only played three total snaps in that particular lineup from 2019 through 2021. In 2022 Fitzpatrick was utilized more in that capacity, particularly in the second half of the season. Playing one snap at wide corner in Week 8, Fitzpatrick saw his usage there increase with two games with two snaps and two games with four snaps over the Steelers final seven games. Playing eight snaps at that position last Sunday was twice as many as he had seen in any other game with the Steelers.
So is it really a big deal that Minkah Fitzpatrick was aligned on the defensive line and at wide corner? It’s not really a big deal at all other than the fact that it is taking him out of his typical free safety position, one in which many Steelers’ fans believe he thrives the most.
Perhaps it was the Steelers game plan simply in Week 1 against the 49ers to try to help against their potent rushing attack and quality tight end. But another option is the Steelers new pieces in the secondary, both safety and cornerback, require Fitzpatrick to be moved around and used in a different way.
Another thing Steelers fans should remember is the difference isn’t necessarily always bad. And while Minkah Fitzpatrick did not seem to be a huge factor in last week’s game, it does not mean that his alignment in these games moving forward would be a bad thing.
As I said at the beginning, having a one-game sample size is not ideal when trying to establish a pattern. But for Steelers fans who were wondering, “What happened to Minkah Fitzpatrick on Sunday?“ this might be an answer to the question and something to monitor moving forward.
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