The Pittsburgh Steelers had a lot of turnover in the secondary this offseason. Out went starters like cornerbacks Cameron Sutton, Arthur Maulet, and safety Terrell Edmunds and in came cornerbacks Patrick Peterson, Joey Porter Jr. and safety Keanu Neal. Only two full-time starters from last season are returning in the secondary this season: safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and cornerback Levi Wallace. For Pittsburgh to be successful this season it will be vital that Fitzpatrick has one of his best seasons to date.
Since arriving to the Steel City in fall 2019, Fitzpatrick has been a game breaker who turned a porous Pittsburgh secondary into an elite one. However, in recent years that secondary has once again become a weakness despite Fitzpatrick’s great play. This year, though, the secondary looks very different besides him and Wallace and for that reason, he will have a lot to shoulder to keep the 2023 Steelers secondary respectable.
With new safety partners in Damontae Kazee (yes, they played a bit last year together but Edmunds was the starter and saw most snaps with Fitzpatrick), and Neal, along with two new cornerbacks, one on the outside and one in the slot, communication may be difficult. Hopefully that can be sorted out in training camp, but we cannot assume that by Week One communication will be perfect, it takes time.
Fitzpatrick himself even emphasized this during the season last year when Kazee returned to the line-up, saying how communication is key in the secondary. Being the leader of the defensive backfield, making sure communication runs smoothly, especially early on, will be on him. Not only are there a lot of new faces, but also it is possible a rookie in Porter will be out there on a lot of snaps. This will lead to Fitzpatrick having to coach a little bit in the secondary to help Porter out.
Luckily for the Steelers, Fitzpatrick is good at this. Earlier this offseason Wallace said that Fitzpatrick will change play calls on defense based on what he is seeing given how high his football IQ is. His ability to do this should help out the new and young defenders in the secondary as they will be in better positions thanks to his knowledge.
Not only will Fitzpatrick have to help coach the Steelers new secondary and make sure communication is on point, but he will have to continue to make splash plays. Since arriving in Pittsburgh, Fitzpatrick has been a playmaker and that is going to have to continue this season. Last year, Fitzpatrick forced six turnovers with all of them being interceptions. Given the Steelers formula to win this season being a strong defensive team, Fitzpatrick likely will have to force five-plus turnovers again this season.
Yes, the Steelers brought in a defensive playmaker like Peterson, and Kazee and Neal should be able to provide more takeaways than Edmunds was able to, but there are question marks around them. Peterson played in a zone heavy scheme as a Minnesota Viking and is moving to a more man heavy scheme in Pittsburgh. In addition he may play more slot cornerback snaps this season as the team’s slot depth is bad. Peterson should still be a good player this season, but his interceptions numbers could drop in a different scheme. And while Kazee should provide more splash plays when he is in than Edmunds he won’t be able to provide the same presence in the box that Edmunds brought and Neal isn’t any better than Edmunds in the splash play department. Porter had one interception in college meaning that takeaways in the secondary will need to be spearheaded once again by Fitzpatrick. Pittsburgh’s offense is not explosive, nor high scoring so the defense will have to take the football away to give the Steelers offense as many opportunities to score while also preventing the opponent from scoring. With question marks on how the new faces will do in Pittsburgh, if Fitzpatrick isn’t making splash plays things could get ugly in the secondary.
There is so much turnover in Pittsburgh’s secondary this year it is going to look a lot different than last year. Given this, it will be vital for Fitzpatrick to continue to play at a high level, especially early on in the year as the defensive backfield gets more comfortable communicating with each other. The Steelers aren’t a lock for the playoffs this year by any means and every game they win will be huge as they are likely a Wild Card team, and a weak secondary could be exploited in a pass happy NFL. While T.J. Watt is the most important player on the Steelers, Fitzpatrick is a close second and especially early on this year, his play may be difference in making the playoffs or watching them from home.