Safety First? The Minkah Fitzpatrick Trade Literally Saved the Steelers Season

On the night of Monday, September 16, right after it was announced that the Steelers had traded their 2020 first-round pick to the Dolphins for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, I texted this news to my uncle.

He replied, “Haha, he sucks!” When I retorted with how he was the only fan who was reacting that way — the Internet was going crazy about it in the most positive way possible — my uncle texted back, “Ryan Fitzpatrick is washed up.”

  • You see, what I forgot to mention was that I failed to type “Minkah” when texting my uncle about the big news. Therefore, you can certainly understand his confusion.

After all, coming just hours after it was announced that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was going on the Injured Reserve list and would miss the rest of the 2019 season after suffering an elbow injury that would require surgery, one might assume any major trade Pittsburgh made would involve acquiring a veteran quarterback.

No, maybe not someone like Ryan Fitzpatrick, but certainly a passer of some pedigree, a player who could possibly step in and salvage a season that had started out 0-2 and, with the loss of the franchise quarterback, seemed destined to go downhill very fast.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Kameron Kelly, Mark Barron, Steelers vs Rams

Minkah Fitzpatrick celebrates after returning a fumble for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live

But the truth was, despite his lack of experience as a professional, the Steelers were quite confident Mason Rudolph, the second-year quarterback from Oklahoma State, could step in and lead the offense (whether or not this confidence was justifiable is still up for debate).

What they weren’t confident in, however, was the back-end of their defense, especially after free safety Sean Davis suffered a shoulder injury that, like Ben Roethlisberger, would require a lengthy stay on the IR.

Therefore, when Fitzpatrick, who was selected by the Dolphins with the 11th -overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft, voiced his displeasure with Miami’s desire to tank the 2019 season in-order to obtain the highest 2020 draft pick possible and demanded a trade, the Steelers pounced.

That’s right, in an era when doing very un-Steeler-like things has become the new Steeler Way — and just months after trading several draft picks to the Broncos in order to move up to the 10th spot to select inside linebacker Devin Bush in the 2019 NFL Draft — Pittsburgh offered the Dolphins a deal they simply couldn’t refuse.

It was a risk, and, quite frankly, it didn’t make much sense at the time, not when it appeared the 2019 season was headed for disaster, and it looked like Pittsburgh’s 2020 first-round pick would likely be a premium one.

Why go all-in in a season that didn’t figure to finish anywhere near Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Florida, the site of Super Bowl LIV?

  • Because the Steelers saw a golden opportunity to add the final piece to a defense that they had been trying to rebuild for close to a decade.

While the winning didn’t start soon after Minkah Fitzpatrick’s arrival, you could definitely see a difference in the defense right away. In-fact, the Steelers recorded five takeaways in a disappointing Week 3 loss to the 49ers –Fitzpatrick’s first game as a member of the Black and Gold.

Speaking of which, after averaging about one takeaway a game before acquiring Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Steelers’ defense has averaged over three times that many since the trade.

  • The defense has gone from averaging 445 yards given up per game without Fitzpatrick, to averaging roughly 300 given up with him in the lineup.

In seven games with the Steelers, Minkah Fitzpatrick has five interceptions, eight passes defensed, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and two defensive touchdowns. If he isn’t yet in the discussion for Defensive Player of the Year, he likely soon will be.

Cam Heyward, Todd Gurley, Cameron Heyward, Steelers vs Rams

Cam Heyward stones Todd Gurley in the 3rd quarter of the Steelers win over the Rams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

As for Pittsburgh’s defense, it’s quickly becoming one of the most fierce and opportunistic in the NFL. After years of being considered a weakness and a second banana to the high-powered offense, the Steelers defense has now become the strength of the team and has made it a habit of compensating for the weaknesses of offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner’s depleted unit.

What once looked like a helpless and hopeless season at 0-3 and 1-4 has turned into one where the playoffs are again the goal.

  • The Steelers are now 5-4 after having won four-straight games, and they’ve done so on the strength of their defense.

Would the Steelers have even considered trading for Fitzpatrick if not for the injuries suffered by Ben Roethlisberger and Sean Davis? Furthermore, would the Dolphins have even considered doing business with the Steelers without the very real possibility that Pittsburgh’s 2020 first-round pick would be a high one?

  • That’s impossible to say, but the only thing that’s certain is that the deal for Minkah Fitzpatrick saved the Steelers defense.

A trade for a safety saved a team’s season. Hard to believe.

 

 

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Buyer’s Remorse? Steelers Cut Donte Moncrief, Promote Tony Brooks-James from Practice Squad

In a move that counts as dramatic if unsurprising, the Pittsburgh Steelers have cut Donte Moncrief to make room on their regular season roster for practice squad running back Tony BrooksJames.

With James Conner and Benny Snell both injured, the only running backs the Steelers have going into Sunday’s game against the Indianapolis Colts are Jaylen Samuels and Trey Edmunds. So in one sense simple roster-math dictates that the Steelers make this move.

  • But if the Steelers were simply looking to move a body, they could have just as easily cut Johnny Holton

Indeed, they could have cut Holton today and resigned him Monday morning. Instead, they chose to give in to a bit of free agency buyer’s remorse and cut Donte Moncrief, the wide receiver the Steelers signed in free agency to a two year, $9 million contract with a $3.5 million signing bonus.

  • By waving Donte Moncrief now, add another $250,000 to their salary cap as all of Moncrief’s bonus accrues.

The upside to this decision, however, is that it now gives the chance for the Steelers to get a compensatory pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Donte Moncreif, Donte Moncrief Steelers debut, steelers vs patriots

Donte Moncrief’s Steelers debut definitely left a lot to be desired. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

While the NFL’s formula for awarding compensatory picks isn’t 100% apparent, the Steelers believed they were due a 3rd round pick in 2020, largely due to the deal signed by Le’Veon Bell. However, when the Philadelphia Eagles cut L.J. Fort, the Steelers lost that pick, leading to speculation that Donte Moncrief would get cut before the 10th week of the season.

Given that the Devin Bush, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Nick Vannett trades have greatly depleted the Steelers draft capital, a 3rd round compensatory pick is certainly valuable.

  • Nonetheless, it amounts to a bitter consolation prize.

The Steelers were counting on Donte Moncrief to provide veteran leadership and mentorship for JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and Diontae Johnson following the departure of Antonio Brown. While Donte Moncreif’s record outside of Pittsburgh was mixed, it was hoped pairing him with Ben Roethlisberger would give him a chance to live up to his potential.

Yet, in the Steelers opening day loss to the Patriots, Moncrief dropped six passes including a would-be 3rd down conversion early in the game when just a little bit of momentum would have given Pittsburgh a shot in the arm.

A week later, Moncrief caused Mason Rudolph’s interception when he let a pass go through his hands, in a play which turned the game in favor of the Seahawks.

In fairness to him, Donte Moncrief was having a strong training camp, until he suffered a dislocated finger, and injury which he indicated he did not expect to heal during the season.

One week ago existing the bye week, word was that the Steelers were “All In” on Ben Roethlisberger’s return. That remains the case, but it is also true that Pittsburgh is now “All In” on the youth movement at wide receiver because at the ripe age of 23, JuJu Smith-Schuster becomes the Steelers most experienced wide out.

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Its Official: Defense is Once Again the Strength of the Pittsburgh Steelers

Controversial Pittsburgh sports talk show host, Mark Madden, described the Steelers defense as their most dynamic and exciting unit, these days, while describing the offense as “death.”

While I wouldn’t quite go that far with the death part, I do agree with Madden’s sentiment that, when comparing the two, the defense is more exciting and dynamic than the offense.

One might say that this is by default, thanks to the season-ending elbow injury suffered by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2, a setback that came just months after the team had to part ways with disgruntled receiver Antonio Brown and his game-changing abilities.

I’ll give you that. After all, it was only two years ago that the Steelers were defined by the Killer Bee’s: Ben, Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell.

  • That was the trio that made things go for the Steelers, that made them legitimate Super Bowl contenders for many years.

Therefore, I can see where one would be a bit skeptical of the defense’s true strength, especially since it’s been a question mark since 2011, when Warren Sapp described it as “Old, slow and it’s over.”

  • But, the fact of the matter is, things have been trending in the direction of a defensive-heavy Steelers team for quite some time.

Take the draft, for example, and the fact that Pittsburgh has used its first-round selection on a defensive player every year since 2013. The last time the Steelers went offense in the first round was 2012, and that was to select guard David DeCastro. The Steelers haven’t used a first-round pick on a skill-position player since the infamous 2008 NFL Draft, when they drafted running back Rashard Mendenhall.

  • It was simply a matter of time before the defense became noticeably more talented than the offense.

You actually began to see signs of it two seasons ago, when the defense led the league in sacks and set a single-season franchise record with 56.

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

Devin Bush dives for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Unfortunately, 2017 was when the team lost the services of inside linebacker Ryan Shazier with a serious spinal injury. Shazier did a lot of the heavy lifting for the defense, and when he was lost, it showed.

The defense just didn’t have the cog to make it go, to help turn it into an opportunistic unit. That’s why, despite another prolific year getting after the quarterback, the defense could muster just 15 takeaways last season.

  • That just wasn’t going to get it done–it never has in the NFL.

Maybe that was why  Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin found it necessary to act quite aggressively in the 2019 NFL Draft and traded up into the 10th spot to take Michigan inside linebacker Devin Bush.

Physically, Devin Bush is about as dynamic and explosive as Ryan Shazier was in his prime. He’s obviously not a finished product by any stretch, but he appears to be well on his way to being the player the Steelers need him to be in the middle of the defense.

Speaking of aggressive, the Steelers were that on September 16, when they sent their 2020 first-round pick to the Dolphins in-exchange for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. And while he’s only in his second season, he does appear to be a finished product, one that has finally turned the secondary into an asset. In five games with Pittsburgh, Fitzpatrick already has three interceptions, five passes defensed, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.

Minkah, Fitzpatrick, Minkah Fitzpatrick interception Dolphins, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

Minkah Fitzpatrick 2nd interception against the Dolphins. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

As a whole, the Steelers defense, one that is still a force in getting after the passer with 23.5 sacks through seven games, has already surpassed its takeaway totals from last year with 19. That’s good for second in the NFL.

It wasn’t that long ago that you didn’t have to look very hard to find a weakness on Pittsburgh’s defense. Now, it’s becoming harder and harder to find a scapegoat, even after a loss.

  • Normally, when I watch a Steelers game, I’m a little on edge whenever they’re on defense.
  • It’s a natural state to be in, in my opinion. After all, the name “defense” is rather self-explanatory.

At any moment, some running back can break one the distance, or some receiver can get behind a defensive back, and, just like that, it’s seven points on the board for them.

But I don’t feel so defensive when watching Keith Butler’s unit, these days. In fact, I rather enjoy it when his players are out there putting on a show.

Who doesn’t love watching T.J. Watt and his DPOTY talent do this thing week in and week out? Who doesn’t get excited when Cam Heyward dominates an offensive lineman on his way to the quarterback?

The Steelers defense even has the signature celebrations on the team, these days, which it puts on full-display after securing one of its now patented takeaways.

  • The Steelers defense hasn’t quite risen to a level where it can be trusted fully, but it’s getting there.

In fact, I’d say it’s just a matter of time before it’s a unit Steelers fans can fully depend on to save the day on a weekly basis.

 

 

 

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Key Take Away Exiting Bye Week? Steelers Remain “All In” on Ben Roethlisberger’s Recovery

Kinda of like “Midway” on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the Steelers 2019 bye week didn’t arrive in the middle of the season, but it still provides convenient point to assess what we’ve learned about the team so far.

Heading into the season, the Steelers needed to affirmatively answer two key questions:

  • Could a post-Killer Bees Steelers offense survive or even thrive?
  • Would the Steelers defense build on the latent growth evident at the tail end of the 2018 season?

The easy responses are “No” and “Yes,” but after six games, honest answers evade both questions.

At first glance, the Steelers offense resembles a struggling, shell of its former self. Numbers don’t lie. The Steelers offense ranks near the bottom by any number of measures. Opposing defensive coordinators don’t lose sleep before playing Pittsburgh. They might fret over pressuring the quarterback, but this offense scares no one.

Sure, JuJu Smith-Schuster is frustrating fantasy owners, and James Conner isn’t running with the authority that he ran with last season. But starting 3 quarterbacks in 6 games yields a limited and unrepresentative sample. The reality remains that its far too early to write off the Steelers offense.

  • By the same token, its still too early to say dominating defense as returned to Pittsburgh.

New arrivals such as Steven Nelson, Devin Bush Jr. and Minkah Fitzpatrick have improved the unit. Keith Butler’s defense has been both harassing quarterback AND taking the ball away, and they’ve been executing those splash plays at critical moments in games (See Bud Dupree’s strip-sack vs the Bengals.)

  • All positive signs for Pittsburgh.

But can the Steelers defense sustain this? Arguably, the unit has lost its best player, Stephon Tuitt for the year. Stephon Tuitt was dominating opposing offenses and which paved the way for the Steelers to “Get there with four” when rushing the quarterback.

  • The improvement of the Steelers defense is real and appears to be sustainable, even without Tuitt.

But the same could have been said back in 2017, when the Keith Butler’s boys flirted with dominance in games against the Chiefs, Bengals and Lions only to end the season as unit that needed several Chris Boswell last minute saves in the regular season, and came up flat footed against the Jaguars in the playoffs.

To put it in Yoda speak, “Look good the Steelers defense does. But six games does not a dominating unit make.”

Key Bye Week Take Away Revolves Around Roethlisberger

So if we can’t say much with a lot of confidence about the Steelers offense and defense thus far in 2019, what is it that we can say?

  • It’s that the Steelers remain “All In” on Ben Roethlisberger’s recovery.

Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, St. Vincents, St. Vincent's, Steelers training camp, Latrobe

Mike Tomlin & Ben Roethlisberger at St. Vincents in summer of 2019. Photo Credit: The Morning Call

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who has been paying attention for the last 3-4 years. While he wasn’t involved in management of the team, Art Rooney II certainly remembers what it was like to have Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone, David Woodley and Bubby Brister starting at quarterback.

  • Art Rooney II has tasted life without a franchise quarterback, and he knows franchise quarterbacks are very hard to find.

That fueled decisions as far ranging as forcing Todd Haley out, to extending Ben Roethlisberger’s contract at age 37 to paying a premium to move up to draft Devin Bush Jr. in the 2019 NFL Draft. What has changed however, is Roethlisberger’s health.

  • Ben Roethlisberger’s 2019 campaign stopped after 6 quarters, and elbow surgery ended it for good.

The Steelers knew their 37 year old quarterback needed elbow surgery, yet still traded their 2020 first round draft pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Trading a 1st round draft pick cuts against the franchises DNA. But the fact is that Minkah Fitzpatrick can do a lot more to help the Steelers win a Super Bowl in 2020 than someone they might draft.

Its a plan that could payoff masterfully….

…But only if Ben Roethlisberger returns in franchise form.

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Mason Rudolph’s Competition Isn’t Ben Roethlisberger Its Lamarr Jackson and Baker Mayfield

The 2019 regular season is four weeks old, and the Steelers are 1-3 and without their best player, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, for the remainder of the year.

  • In Roethlisberger’s place is second-year man Mason Rudolph, and while he’s looked pretty decent so far, it’s obvious the shoes he’s trying to fill are enormous.

And that’s why, regardless of the hope one may have that the Steelers can actually recover from this shaky start and compete for the AFC North crown, how legit can they really be without their best and most important player?

Fair point. The position of quarterback is essential to success in the NFL. And when a quarterback’s status and level of play is truly at the franchise level, how he goes is how his team goes, and if he goes down….look out below!

Mason Rudolph, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers 2019 season

Mason Rudolph’s competition isn’t Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Philip G. Pavely-USA Today, via BTSC

However, you might also say that, when discussing the position of quarterback, it’s all relative. What I mean by that is, where do the other franchise quarterbacks reside in the AFC in 2019?

Obviously, the great Tom Brady lives in the weak AFC East. The heir apparent to Brady’s throne as the most dominant quarterback in all the land, Patrick Mahomes, is wreaking havoc out in the AFC West. Philip Rivers, a veteran whose abilities and individual achievements have rivaled Roethlisberger’s since the two first came into the league in 2004, also calls the AFC West home.

Andrew Luck used to get top billing in the AFC South, but now he resides at home. Deshaun Watson has displayed franchise quarterback tendencies, so you might say it’s his turn to claim the top bunk in that division, but that division isn’t the AFC North.

  • And that’s the point of this piece.

If the Steelers were in any other division in the AFC, I wouldn’t like their odds at all of competing for anything but a decent draft pick in 2020 (which would actually be in the second round, since they just traded their first round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft for Minkah Fitzpatrick).

Obviously, Dalton, despite a decent enough career that may have been better had he not been with the Bengals, has long since proven he’s no franchise quarterback.

As for the youngsters in the division? While the hype surrounding both Lamarr Jackson and Baker Mayfield has been at a franchise level, their play has yet to reach those heights….at least on a consistent enough basis.

With 1,110 passing yards, 10 touchdowns to just two interceptions, and legs that should be weaponized and have already carried him to 238 yards and another score, Jackson, a decorated college quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist, appears to be on his way to the franchise level in only his second season.

As for Mayfield, who was the first overall pick by the Browns in the 2018 NFL Draft, he also appears to be well on his way to the elite level. Through 17 starts, he’s already passed for 4,872 yards, 31 touchdowns and 20 interceptions.

It’s those 20 interceptions that may give one pause, however. Also, Mayfield and the Browns have gotten off to a slower start than anticipated in 2019, despite the Super Bowl hype that surrounded them in the offseason.

As for Jackson and the Ravens, who both looked unstoppable over the first two weeks playing against lesser competition, they’ve fallen back down to Earth these last two games and, like Cleveland, are 2-2.

Both Mayfield and Jackson have the draft pedigree (Jackson was also a first-round pick in the 2018 draft) and raw talent to make it as top level quarterbacks in the NFL.

But they’re not there yet. And while they both certainly have the edge in experience over Mason Rudolph, who will be making just his third-career start on Sunday afternoon, when the Steelers take on Lamarr Jackson and the Ravens in a very important Week 5 match-up at Heinz Field, the gap isn’t that great.

While a player like Tom Brady, with his experience and accomplishes, might seem light years ahead of Mason Rudolph, when it comes to Mayfield and Jackson and their time in the NFL, it’s like night and later that night.

While Mason Rudolph wasn’t one of the stars of the 2018 draft class of quarterbacks, he was occasionally in the discussion when talking about the ones who could actually become something at the pro level.

The jury is still out on Mason Rudolph, a third-round pick, but as the Steelers try to recover from their rocky start to the season and actually gain equal footing with the likes of Baltimore and Cleveland, it’s important to remember that the same can be said for both Jackson and Mayfield.

Mason Rudolph doesn’t have to match the play of a future Hall of Fame quarterback in 2019. He just has to run the same race as a couple of fellow 2018 draft picks.

 

 

 

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