Steelers’ trade for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick sends four messages loud and clear

first_imgIt says, loudly:They believe in second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph, in what they saw in his college performances before drafting him in the 2018 third round, what they’ve seen in training since and what they observed when he took over for a little more than a half in Sunday’s loss to Seattle.They expect star QB Ben Roethlisberger to recover at a reasonable pace from elbow surgery that will cost him the remainder of the 2019 season. He’ll have two years remaining on his contract then. If Rudolph excels, they can decide how they want to address the future.They know their defense has been a wreck, particularly in the middle of the field, and Fitzpatrick has excelled in his short time in the league as a slot corner and safety.Most important, they have not surrendered on the 2019 season and believe what remains is salvageable, despite an 0-2 start and the absence of a quarterback who has seen them through 144 wins and two Super Bowl titles since 2004.MORE: Fitzpatrick trade grades for Steelers, DolphinsIt’s a declaration of intent by the Steelers that they refuse to surrender on the season, despite a horrific start in every respect: too many injuries, too many defeats, too few reasons to be optimistic. They perceive no cause at all for surrender.”We feel comfortable with the team we’ve assembled,” coach Mike Tomlin said at his weekly Tuesday press conference. “Obviously, we’ve dealt with some circumstances that will force us to adjust and play a certain style that puts us in position to win. Our level of expectations in terms of our performance will not change, and has not changed.”It is our job to keep this train rolling. … If anything, from a competitor’s standpoint, it energizes me and us. We’re excited about balling up our fists and fighting, and fighting together.”Tomlin said Fitzpatrick will immediately move into the free safety position vacated by an injury to veteran Sean Davis, who was placed on injured reserve. As Fitzpatrick gains familiarity with the Steelers’ approach, however, he also might be deployed as a slot corner, where he last season was regarded as one of the most effective in the league. Trading away a first-round pick can give off the scent of a desperate management team trying to remain relevant by selling the future. In this case, though there is no certainty the trade will be a smash, they have risked little of their future and wheedled some financial flexibility under the salary cap. Because the Dolphins paid his signing bonus, the Steelers get three years of Fitzpatrick at an average annual salary of $1.9 million. There also is an option for a fifth year, in 2022. They would have control of their 2020 pick only a smidge longer, and Fitzpatrick is a proven NFL player, not someone who might struggle with the transition from college.He might struggle with the transition to the Steelers, though, and that’s where this becomes a discussion.There are a few scenarios in which this trade becomes disastrous:1. Rudolph proves not to be a worthy successor at quarterback and Roethlisberger’s recovery does not facilitate his return to the field next September, meaning the Steelers will have blown a chance to find a QB with a high 2020 first-rounder.2. The pieces in place this autumn fail so spectacularly that the Steelers find themselves slotted into one of the prime draft positions — say top five — in 2020.3. The deficiencies in the Steelers’ defensive backfield’s schemes and/or training have the same deleterious effect on Fitzpatrick as on safeties Terrell Edmunds and Davis or an army of drafted cornerbacks, most notably 2016 first-rounder Artie Burns.That last one is the most important factor. The current Steelers have given no one a reason to be confident they can make Fitzpatrick a stellar component of an elite unit.MORE: Steelers’ Rudolph pick now seems shrewd at worst, genius at bestThere is a saying in coaching: “It’s not the Xs and the Os, it’s the Jimmies and the Joes.” But if a Minkah flops, joining all the Jimmies and Joes drafted and undeveloped by the Steelers over more than a decade, the cause will be obvious.The Steelers haven’t drafted a long-term starter at corner since William Gay in 2007. They haven’t selected a reliable safety since Troy Polamalu in 2003.With Fitzpatrick stepping into the free safety position, though, three of the team’s four regular DBs will have been acquired from other organizations and had some measure of success elsewhere. In his third season with the team, corner Joe Haden has been very good. First-year corner Steven Nelson, a free agent signed away from the Chiefs, has been adequate at least.Through two games, however, the Steelers do not have a single interception. With two passes defensed, they rank last in the league. Neither stat is an anomaly. They were 28th in interceptions last season and 14th in passes defensed. None of this is a surprise, because their defensive backs almost never are near the ball.Fitzpatrick had nine PDs last season; among the Steelers, only Haden topped that. So it is up to defensive coordinator Keith Butler to put his secondary into positions where they can more commonly disrupt opponents’ passing attacks. If Fitzpatrick does not make a difference, if the nature of Butler’s schemes does more to vex him than the opposition, we’ll know for certain where the issue rests. The Steelers made official early Tuesday morning what the unofficial reports flooding the media late Monday made real for those who follow the league: Pittsburgh traded its 2020 first-round draft choice to Miami in exchange for young defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, a revolutionary transaction for a franchise known for its orthodoxy.It was a deal that made several profound statements at once, about what the Steelers think of themselves and their immediate future.center_img WEEK 3 NFL PICKS: Against the spread | Straight-up predictionsWhile the Ravens were dazzling at 2-0 but claiming only the Dolphins and Cardinals as victims, the Steelers were stuck opening against the reigning Super Bowl champion and a near-perennial playoff team. Their horrid defensive performances must be attributed, at least in part, to the challenge of facing QBs Tom Brady and Russell Wilson.The issues at the back end of the Pittsburgh D, though, were not invented by those two stars. It’s an old problem with a potentially new solution.last_img

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