Minkah Fitzpatrick provided plenty of splash plays during his first season with the Steelers. Fitzpatrick, the Dolphins' 2018 first round pick who was traded to Pittsburgh two games into the 2019 season, earned an All-Pro selection last season while helping the Steelers boast one of the league's best defensive units.
In 14 games, Fitzpatrick recorded five interceptions, returning one of those picks 96 yards for a touchdown. He also returned one of his two fumble recoveries for a score. Fitzpatrick totaled 57 tackles, nine passes defensed and a forced fumble. His individual goal for 2020? Becoming the NFL's best defensive player.
"Honestly, I'm gonna try to compete for the Defensive Player of the Year," Fitzpatrick said Friday on ESPN's 'First Take.' "Last year, I had a pretty good run at it, and then, towards the end of the season, teams stopped throwing at me and whatnot, kinda (hurting) my stats."
Fitzpatrick believes that he will get more opportunities to make plays in 2020.
"I think, next year, we're gonna have a different type of system or more people on the field that they can't choose to not throw at me," he said. "So, I definitely feel like I'll be able to make more plays consistently, not just in spurts. Definitely going to be competing for Defensive Player of the Year as well as the Pro Bowl and All-Pro."
After Fitzpatrick played several positions with the Dolphins, the Steelers didn't move him around, placing him at free safety and moving Terrell Edmunds -- who was drafted 17 spots after Fitzpatrick in the 2018 draft -- to strong safety. A starter from the get-go in Pittsburgh, Fitzpatrick was an immediate play-maker, recording an interception and forcing a fumble in his first game as a Steeler. During a five-game span around the season's midpoint, Fitzpatrick tallied four interceptions, two fumble recoveries, a pick-six and a fumble returned for a score.
Fitzpatrick's numbers fell off during the final five games of the season. He broke up just one pass while not recording a turnover during that stretch. It's not a coincidence that the Steelers started losing games without Fitzpatrick's game-altering plays, as Pittsburgh lost its last three games to fall out of postseason contention.
As he alluded to above, teams started throwing away from Fitzpatrick during the final stretch of the season. Given the fact that he came to the Steelers on "a moving train" (borrowing one of head coach Mike Tomlin's favorite sayings), Fitzpatrick wasn't able to learn all of the nuances of Pittsburgh's defense last season. More time with Tomlin, fellow defensive coaches Keith Butler, Teryl Austin, Tom Bradley, and his new teammates will likely lead to Fitzpatrick's role in the defense expanding in 2020. Unlike last season, Fitzpatrick should be able to do more freelance work while making it harder for offenses to avoid him.
When it comes to Pittsburgh's personnel, the Steelers are surely hoping that defensive backs Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, Cameron Sutton, Mike Hilton and Justin Layne help create opportunities for Fitzpatrick to make more plays. Sutton, a 2017 fourth-round pick, made significant progress last season. There were also rumblings about Sutton, a cornerback, possibly seeing time at safety, a position where the Steelers could use some depth after losing Sean Davis in free agency.
The continued development of inside linebacker Devin Bush, the team's first round pick last season, will also help create more opportunities for Fitzpatrick. A member of last season, Bush showed the ability to make plays in the passing game, particularly on intermediate post routes. Bush's continued development would certainly help create more opportunities for Fitzpatrick to make plays outside the hash marks.
Pittsburgh's pass rush, led by T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, will also help Fitzpatrick. A healthy Stephon Tuitt, who provided pressure on Fitzpatrick's pick-six against the Colts, will help both Fitzpatrick as well as the Steelers' defense as a whole, especially with the offseason loss of Javon Hargrave.
The Steelers' offense will help determine how many opportunities Fitzpatrick and his defensive teammates get. Near the end of the '19 season, with Pittsburgh's offense in a tailspin, opposing offenses were content to run the ball. With Ben Roethlisberger set to return following last September's elbow surgery, Pittsburgh's offense should put its defense in more favorable positions.
Fitzpatrick is confident that Pittsburgh's future Hall of Fame quarterback will return to form. That would certainly help him in his quest to become just the fifth safety to win the NFL's highest defensive honor.
"He's a competitor," Fitzpatrick said of Roethlisberger, Eric Ebron. "He lost a year of doing what he loves, so he's definitely gonna come back with a chip on his shoulder and ready to just go out there and make plays. I'm excited about it. Just going up against him in practice, seeing him on the field, I'm gonna become better from it. It's gonna be a whole lot of fun."in former Colts tight end