Legacy of the Steelers safety position

Minkah Fitzpatrick carries the torch

By: Dave Stewart

Throughout their history, the Pittsburgh Steelers, when they are winning, have always been led by an intimidating defense. While there have been stars at all levels of the defense, with names like Mean Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Greg Lloyd, and Joey Porter, just to name a few, there has almost always been a legendary safety roaming the backfield. Interestingly enough, two such safeties to lift the Lombardi Trophy in black and gold both were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2020.

Donnie Shell and Troy Polamalu are both beloved in Pittsburgh. Shell was a stalwart of the Steeler defense through the late 70s and deep into the 80s. During the team’s second back-to-back Super Bowl championships, he was a key player and those two seasons began a run of five consecutive Pro Bowl invites for him. He also earned First-Team All-Pro honors during three of those seasons. Shell was also a turnover collector, totaling 51 career interceptions and 19 recovered fumbles. Still, his most impressive statistic might be the 201 games that he played for Pittsburgh in his 14 seasons.

Polamalu was an enigma in the course of his career in the NFL. With his signature mane of hair flying wildly behind him, he seemed to cover more ground than was humanly possible. A problem both rushing the passer, as well as in pass defense, Polamalu undoubtedly provided many sleepless nights for opposing offensive coordinators. He flew to the ball and hung his hat on his closing speed when chasing down the ball carrier.

As a Steeler, Polamalu tallied 32 career interceptions to pair with 14 forced fumbles, seven fumble recoveries, and 12 sacks. He scored five touchdowns and carried home a Defensive Player of the Year award. Eight times a Pro-Bowler and four times an All-Pro, Polamalu set a new benchmark for play as a Steelers safety and is respected among the game’s best. A drawback to his all out reckless playing style were the injuries that inevitably came with. Polamalu missed over 30 career games with various physical ailments.

The latest version of menacing Steeler defense also features a marquee player at the back end. The Steelers hope to have hit the jackpot again when they traded their 2020 first round draft pick to acquire Minkah Fitzpatrick early during the 2019 campaign. While it is too early to place him on the same level with the aforementioned Shell and Polamalu, there can be no doubt that his rangy, ball-hawking style added a different dimension to the Steeler defense and did so immediately upon his arrival in the Steel City.

In his very first game as a Steeler, Fitzpatrick secured an interception and forced a fumble. Several weeks later, facing his former team, he recorded his first multi-interception game when he hauled in a pair of picks. In his 48 career games to date, Fitzpatrick has intercepted 11 passes and recovered four fumbles, with all but three of those turnovers coming after his trade to Pittsburgh.

A primary difference between Polamalu and Fitzpatrick is the role they play. As a free safety, Fitzpatrick mans the deepest parts of the field, whereas Polamalu played strong safety, often lining up close to the line of scrimmage and rushing the passer at a far more significant rate. With no sacks to his credit and only one quarterback hit, which incidentally came in Miami where they did have him playing strong safety, Fitzpatrick is unlikely to ever accumulate the amount of sacks that Polamalu did.

A similarity between the two players is evident when considering their playmaking abilities. Both safeties have tremendous ball skills and excellent closing speed, making any quarterback Leary about throwing in their direction. At 24 years old, Fitzpatrick’s career has really just begun. He has been active for every game in his first three seasons, starting in the last 40 consecutive contests. Steeler fans hold out hope that his overall career trajectory will be on par with those who have come before him in Pittsburgh. His ability in pass coverage will come in handy particularly in 2021, as the team is thin at the cornerback position. Scheming zone coverage to mitigate that weakness will be required. With a lot more football in him, my belief is that Fitzpatrick will assume the mantle of his predecessors and become the next in a line of great safeties in western Pennsylvania.

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