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Steelers' defense looks for right mix vs. AFC North's Heisman QBs

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PITTSBURGH -- Mike Tomlin wants a team full of hunters -- and not just ones after ducks and deer.

The Pittsburgh Steelers head coach crafted his defensive roster to hunt the Heisman-winning quarterbacks his team will face in their division this year. And with moves dating back to last season, the Steelers are quickly assembling the kind of defense needed to not just survive, but thrive in the AFC North.

After the Cincinnati Bengals drafted Joe Burrow with the top pick last month, each of the Steelers' divisional opponents has at least one Heisman winner on the roster. The Ravens have three: quarterbacks Lamar Jackson and Robert Griffin III and running back Mark Ingram, while the Cleveland Browns have one: quarterback Baker Mayfield.

"We now have three Heisman Trophy-winning [starting] quarterbacks in the AFC North," Tomlin said after the draft. "We've got to employ people to hunt those guys."

The Steelers most recently made moves toward that end in the draft, selecting Charlotte defensive end Alex Highsmith with the intention of turning him into an outside linebacker. He joins an elite position group that also includes Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt, who combined for 26 sacks last season.

But the process to further fortify the defense began in earnest a year ago when the Steelers traded up in the 2019 NFL draft to acquire inside linebacker Devin Bush and then traded away their 2020 first-round pick in Week 2 to acquire safety Minkah Fitzpatrick from Miami. Then the Steelers placed a franchise tag on Dupree prior to the 2020 draft, ensuring they can keep two of the NFL's best pass-rushers together for at least another season.

"There's a lot of talent in our division," Fitzpatrick said. "It's competitive. Probably one of the toughest divisions in the league. It's something that we look forward to as professional athletes, as competitors. I think it's going to raise our game, it's going to raise our opponents' game. It's fun playing against those guys and playing against guys like Lamar, Baker, soon to be Joe Burrow.

"We've got to step up to the plate and make sure we're on our A++ game and continue to execute and play the way that we play."

Against Heisman-winning quarterbacks last year, a group that includes the Cardinals' Kyler Murray and Griffin III in Week 17, the Steelers' defense performed better than it did against the rest of the league's QBs.

The Steelers sacked Heisman winners 10.9% of the time vs. 8.4% against non-Heisman winners. They also forced a 58.6% completion percentage for Heisman winners, while allowing all others 62.1%. Heisman-winning quarterbacks had six touchdowns to eight interceptions against the Steelers, while the others had 17 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

With the exception of Griffin III, all of those Heisman-winning quarterbacks are still relatively new to the league, and there is an expectation that their numbers will get even better. But last year's performance is a good starting point for the Pittsburgh defense.

"I think we're one of the best," Fitzpatrick said of the defense. "I think that was reflected in the way that we played. We were top-three, top-five in almost every single category. ... I think our execution level alongside our talent level is kind of what sets us apart and will continue to set us apart."

Fitzpatrick, named All-Pro in his first season in Pittsburgh, racked up five interceptions in his first seven games, but his stats were much quieter through the final seven games of the season.

"I think teams started taking less shots down field, taking less shots at wherever I was," Fitzpatrick said. "If I was in the middle of the field, they weren't going to be throwing it towards the middle of the field. If I was in the half, they weren't going to be targeting that area, wherever I was. I don't know if it was game plan or decision-making by the QB, but I did realize a difference."

And he's right -- kind of.

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According to ESPN Stats & Information, opposing quarterbacks actually took more deep shots in Weeks 10-17 than in Weeks 3-9. In the early stretch, they completed 3 of 15 attempts of at least 20 yards downfield with no touchdowns and three interceptions. In the second half of the season, quarterbacks were 10-of-31 on deep attempts for two touchdowns and two interceptions.

But the stats also support his claim. Quarterbacks did largely stop targeting him in the second half of the season.

In his first six weeks as a Steeler, Fitzpatrick was targeted 8.3% of the time, or 2.7 times per game, according to NextGen Stats. After Week 10, his target rate dropped to 3.5%, and he was targeted an average of one time per game.

Fitzpatrick doesn't want that to happen again this year.

While he's still a free safety on paper, Fitzpatrick said he's willing to move wherever his coaches ask to be most effective. He lined up at free safety for 795 snaps last year. After that, he spent 41 snaps in the slot.

"I've moved around a lot in the past," Fitzpatrick said. "I just like going out there and making plays and being where I need to be. Last year where I needed to be was in the middle of the field and in the half. It worked out fine and this season, we're going to keep doing what we need to do to win games. If that's corner, linebacker, whatever it may be, that's what I'm going to do."

Fitzpatrick's addition supplemented the already stout defense in Pittsburgh, one that largely remains unchanged entering the 2020 season.

The Steelers return 84% of their defensive snaps from 2019 -- good for fourth-most in the league behind the 49ers, Buccaneers and Chiefs. That's a pretty significant benefit in a time when teams are prevented from gathering in person for OTAs and workouts because of the coronavirus pandemic.

"We have some young faces and new faces, [but] some teams, half their roster, half their secondary or half their linebackers are gone," Fitzpatrick said. "[A shortened preseason and offseason] will definitely give us an advantage because we all have a year [together] under our belt or more than that. I think it's more of an advantage."