Not long ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers trading a future first-round draft pick for a free safety on the same day they lost their franchise quarterback to season-ending surgery would have seemed like a case of misplaced priorities.
Seriously, who would have ever imagined the day would come when the Steelers would be more concerned with the severity of Sean Davis’ shoulder injury than replacing Ben Roethlisberger?
The Steelers are taking a great risk by showing so much confidence in quarterback Mason Rudolph after only one half of an NFL game, but there is potential for a resounding reward in acquiring Minkah Fitzpatrick.
The Steelers are 0-2 not so much because of the play of Roethlisberger — or even Rudolph — but rather a defense that had no answers as Tom Brady and Russell Wilson completed a combined 75% of their passes for 641 yards and six touchdowns without an interception.
The Steelers couldn’t contend for the playoffs without a defensive upgrade, especially in a pass-oriented AFC North that saw 300-yard passing performances from Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton and Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield through the first two weeks.
“It is our job to keep this train rolling,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “If anything, from a competitive standpoint, it energizes me and us. We’re excited about balling up our fists and fighting and fighting together.”
If the Steelers have any hopes of salvaging this season and making a playoff push — and the jobs of general manager Kevin Colbert and Tomlin might depend on it — trading for a standout safety was their best short-term solution.
I’ll say this: It’s infinitely better for the Steelers to add Minkah Fitzpatrick rather than Ryan Fitzpatrick.
When the Steelers won Super Bowls, it was with a star quarterback and the NFL’s top defense. They’ve had only one of those the past few years, and Big Ben couldn’t carry the Steelers even with All-Pros Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.
Now, the Steelers have no choice but to build around the defense. The safety play this season has been, to put it in Tomlin terms, at a junior-varsity level. Second-year strong safety Terrell Edmunds is coming off an awful game against Seattle where he whiffed on a tackle, was called for a critical pass interference penalty and gave up the game-clinching touchdown.
Still, Tomlin was adamant the Steelers traded for Fitzpatrick more so because Davis’ shoulder injury forced the fourth-year safety to be placed on injured reserve.
“All of us share those levels of concerns in today’s NFL, but Sean’s injury was significant,” Tomlin said, emphasizing each syllable of the last word, “in terms of making the move that we did, and I’d be less than genuine if I said otherwise.”
Even more sig-nif-i-cant is the immediate impact the 22-year-old Fitzpatrick could provide the Steelers secondary. The 6-foot-1, 207-pounder was the No. 11 overall pick last year — Tomlin called it a “pipe dream” to draft the playmaker — and had 80 tackles, nine pass breakups and two interceptions as a rookie.
No wonder Tomlin named Fitzpatrick the starter at free safety for Sunday’s game at the San Francisco 49ers before he ever took a practice snap with the Steelers.
Tomlin noted the allure of Fitzpatrick is his ability to play a “myriad” of positions, from slot cornerback and outside cornerback and both safety spots to dime linebacker. That the Dolphins had Fitzpatrick do all of the above is what prompted his trade request.
No worries there, as Fitzpatrick will be paired at safety with fellow 2018 first-rounder Edmunds on a defense built around 10 former first-round picks, including a young core that includes linebackers Devin Bush and T.J. Watt.
“That’s exciting,” Tomlin said, “thinking about those guys having an opportunity to play together as soon as this weekend but, big-picture, to grow together systematically.”
But, small-picture, the Steelers need them to grow together quickly. And they need Fitzpatrick to make an immediate impact — and a significant one at that.