Kevin Gorman: Can Minkah Fitzpatrick solve Steelers’ communication issues?
Right before Minkah Fitzpatrick’s first practice with the Pittsburgh Steelers, strong safety Terrell Edmunds looked at his new teammate and offered a not-so-necessary reminder.
“ ‘T’ looked at me and said, ‘Make sure we talk. Make sure we communicate,’ ” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s really important at safety to communicate, make sure we are on the same page and make sure we speak the same language.”
Fitzpatrick spent his first 24 hours with the Steelers learning a new language, including a five-hour film session with coaches Tuesday to grasp their terminology on defense.
Right now, it’s about word association. The sooner he speaks it fluently, the more valuable Fitzpatrick will become.
By trading their 2020 first-round draft pick to the Miami Dolphins for Fitzpatrick, the No. 11 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, the Steelers gambled the versatile defensive back can help solve their communication issues on defense.
“I feel as if he’s going to pick it up fast,” Edmunds said. “He seems like he knows what he’s talking about now. That’s really on us. It’s not so much on him. We’ve got to make him feel comfortable back there. From there, his play is going to do the talking.”
The Steelers’ secondary had breakdowns against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots and Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks in allowing a combined 641 passing yards and 51 points.
ESPN analyst Louis Riddick tweeted Tuesday about how “baffling” it is the Steelers consistently have “communication errors/coverage busts on what should be the simplest formations and coverage concepts.”
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin didn’t mince words when offering Fitzpatrick is expected to start at San Francisco on Sunday, despite his abbreviated practice preparation.
The Steelers have to hope it’s a positive sign Fitzpatrick said he “didn’t feel out of place at all” following his first practice, when he played free safety with the first-team defense.
“I think it would be very hard for a guy like that to come play right away with only three practices, but I also know Minkah is a different dude mentally,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “He can handle a lot of stuff, so we fully expect him to be out there a ton.”
Steelers inside linebacker Mark Barron, like Fitzgerald, is a former Alabama safety drafted in the first round who also experienced a crash-course after being traded in mid-season. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers sent Barron to the then-St. Louis Rams in October 2014.
“That’s never easy because you’ve got to try to cram it into one week,” Barron said. “It’s just a matter of associating and being able to put things together and say, ‘Oh, this is the same thing as that. It’s just worded differently.’
For Fitzpatrick, it’s more a matter of finding comfort in playing one position. Versatility has been his calling card but sometimes to his detriment. The Dolphins bounced him around the secondary so much, including playing the 6-foot-1, 207-pounder in the box more frequently than he preferred, that he demanded a trade after their 43-0 loss to the Patriots in Week 2.
“I think right now it’s important to anchor me down because I’m learning an entirely new system,” Fitzpatrick said. “Once I learn the system more, they can move me around.”
“I think a vital part of my game is my versatility. I’m able to move around, whether it be free (safety), nickel corner, playing in the box, covering guys. ”
For now, the Steelers are making sure to stay on the same page with Fitzpatrick and catching him up to speed in the secondary.
On Sunday, they need to be speaking the same language.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .