At first glance, the Steelers’ decision this week to trade for Dolphins defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick was a bit of a head-scratcher. Here was an 0-2 team whose franchise quarterback is now out for the season giving up a prime long-term asset—a 2020 first-round pick—in exchange for an immediate upgrade at a position of need. It’s the sort of move a contender makes to catapult itself toward a championship, and the Steelers ... do not appear to be a contender, with or without Fitzpatrick. If this season were to go sideways, Pittsburgh could be looking to draft a quarterback next spring, but now without the possible top-15 or even top-10 pick to do so. Which might be a problem. But there’s a certain team-building logic to what the Steelers did.
The addition of Fitzpatrick represents an effort to shore up the Steelers’ pass defense, a sore spot for much of this decade, and a unit that’s been exposed badly in this season’s first two games. Between 2004 and 2011, the Steelers won a pair of Super Bowls and reached another one. They also thrived defensively, finishing in the top six in pass defense DVOA in six of those eight seasons, per Football Outsiders. Since then, as quick-strike, horizontal passing offenses began to proliferate, those offenses proved to be the perfect antidote to Dick LeBeau’s aggressive, zone-blitz scheme. And as the veteran core of the Steelers’ championship defenses aged out, they were largely replaced by lesser players. Between 2012 and 2018, the Steelers’ pass defense didn’t finish better than 12th in pass defense DVOA; this year, Keith Butler’s fifth as coordinator, it sits at 30th. The Steelers reached the AFC title game in 2016 and looked like a legit Super Bowl threat in 2017, at least until inside linebacker Ryan Shazier’s spinal injury created a gaping hole in the middle of the defense, right where they’re typically the most vulnerable. Fitzpatrick is the latest piece in a puzzle they’ve spent years trying to solve.
The Steelers have long used the draft to build their roster, with an eye on retaining home-grown talent. Pittsburgh rarely trades away draft capital, and it typically dips its toes in the shallower end of the free-agent pool, preferring low-cost depth additions to big-moneyed impact players. This year they added cornerback Steven Nelson in free agency, as a replacement for Artie Burns, a 2016 first-round bust. They also brought in ex-Rams linebacker/safety Mark Barron. On the night before the draft in late April, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger agreed to a two-year extension through 2021. Then, on draft night, the Steelers traded up 10 slots to select Devin Bush—an inside linebacker with a hybrid skillset similar to Shazier’s. Antonio Brown was traded and Le’Veon Bell was permitted to walk, but the Steelers had confidence in their ability to replace their sizable production, especially after what they got last year from JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner. Here was a franchise that missed the playoffs by a half-game applying the finishing touches.
But even those finishing touches were not too costly. Nelson, whom no one is ever going to mistake for Rod Woodson, will earn $9 million this year, but $7.5 million of that will be from his signing bonus—the only full guarantee in his deal, which gives the Steelers a cost-free out if he’s not up to the task this season. Barron’s deal maxes out at two years, $12 million, with just $3.875 million sitting on the books for this year, and a $2.875 dead money charge for next year if they were to dump him. Likewise, the Steelers did not mortgage their future to acquire Bush; they swapped first-rounders with the Broncos and threw in 2019’s second rounder plus a 2020 third rounder. All reasonable, cost-efficient moves. And in this view, the acquisition of Fitzpatrick was, too.
Fitzpatrick was taken 11th overall by the Dolphins in 2018, and he wanted no part of the brazen tank job that threatened to devour his early career there. He’s also just two games into the second season of his rookie contract, which means the Steelers get three years of cost control, plus the possibility of a fourth, including his fifth-year option for 2022. The Dolphins already paid Fitzpatrick’s $10 million signing bonus, and they’re on the hook for that against their cap. Across the next three seasons, Fitzpatrick will count just $955,764, $1.975 million, and $2.722 million against the Steelers’ cap. The Steelers essentially swapped a 2020 first-round pick for a 2018 first-round pick, addressed a genuine weakness, and saved themselves $10 million. It’s a solid, foundational move—and a necessary one.
The Steelers, with Shazier, led the league in DVOA against tight ends in 2017, according to Football Outsiders. Last year, they tumbled all the way to 31st. So far this season, they’ve been awful at defending the middle of the field: According to Pro Football Focus, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson were a combined 26-for-31 for 417 yards, four TDs, and zero interceptions when targeting the middle of the field beyond the line of scrimmage in this season’s first two games. The Steelers’ scheme, which is heavy on a variety of sub-packages—in 2018, the Steelers deployed six or more defensive backs more frequently than any other personnel grouping, per Football Outsiders—is also typically prone to breakdowns in communication. I mean, come on:
The big risk here lies in what might ultimately become of this season, and of Mason Rudolph, Roethlisberger’s replacement. If he works out, the Steelers may have their QB of the future. If he doesn’t, they no longer have a first-rounder to use on a possible replacement, and they’ll be just another team with a decent foundation that’s missing its most valuable commodity. And what about Roethlisberger? He turns 38 in March, and he’ll be coming off surgery for a non-contact injury on his throwing elbow, which doesn’t seem to bode well. “He fully intends to come back from this injury,” head coach Mike Tomlin told reporters. “And everything that we’ve heard, we’re comfortable that that is a strong possibility.” But that was before the surgery, and there’s no way to know how strong that possibility really is.
The Steelers are still built to shoot their shot, and the addition of Fitzpatrick is part of that calibration. But Fitzpatrick can also fit what’s to come if that shot turns out to be a dud.