Minkah Fitzpatrick is the leader the Steelers need right now

PITTSBURGH -- More than 45 minutes after practice ended on a sweltering August day at Saint Vincent College, Minkah Fitzpatrick was still on the field.

The on-field portion of that day’s training camp was over, but the Pittsburgh Steelers safety still had work to do. Methodically, he worked with a staffer catching dozens of balls from every angle.

“[Defensive backs] coach Grady Brown, he says it all the time, ‘We are receivers as DBs. We have to have a 100% catch rate, but we catch almost 100% less passes than what the receiver catches,” Fitzpatrick said, sweat dripping as he caught his breath.

“It's important to get as many catches as the receiver does, whether it be straight on or distracted or the two at once. I think it’s important to get your hands used to securing the ball.”

Over his shoulder, from his left, from his right, over and over until he was satisfied with the reps.

But Fitzpatrick is rarely satisfied. It’s what keeps him returning to the football field and the Steelers’ practice facility every day, arriving early and leaving late. It’s what makes him the kind of leader the Steelers need in the wake of the T.J. Watt pectoral injury that threatens their season.

For the Steelers to survive at least a monthlong stretch without Watt -- including Thursday night’s game against the Cleveland Browns (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video) -- Fitzpatrick will have to be a focal point as a leader and a ball hawk, creating the kind of splash plays to infuse the defense with contagious energy.

“Minkah is a serious competitor,” coach Mike Tomlin said during training camp. “... He always wants in. He wants to cover receivers. He wants to tackle running backs. He wants to blitz. He’s a football player. He’s a guy that loves football. He’s a guy that loves competition, and boy, he’s just really a good guy to have in an environment like this because there’s never a down day with him. He’s always about it. He’s always ready to work.”

From the minute the Steelers gave up an unprecedented first-round pick to get the Alabama standout from Miami, Fitzpatrick has delivered. The Steelers believed Fitzpatrick, who won two national titles in three years, could be the anchor of the secondary -- the next iteration of feared defensive players like Troy Polamalu -- and Fitzpatrick answered the bell when he collected an interception in his debut against the San Francisco 49ers. The picks came in bunches that season as he corralled five in his first seven games.

“He’s vocal, he’s intense, he’s a big-time player and he has been since the day we acquired him on a short week going into San Francisco," Tomlin said. “He was vocal that week.”

Fitzpatrick had four interceptions in 2021, but his responsibilities shifted and his role largely hinged on stopping the run. He finished with a career-high 124 tackles.

But after making him the highest-paid NFL safety this offseason with a 4-year, $73.6-million contract, the Steelers wanted to put Fitzpatrick in position to return to his ball-hawking ways in 2022.

“Guys like him, they want to be great,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said during training camp. “They want to win every play. … He sees the game faster than a lot of people I've ever seen. And Ed Reed was the best that I've had the ability to work with. (Austin was Reed’s position coach with the Ravens in 2011-12) He saw the game faster than anybody I ever played with back there.

“It's a unique trait, and that's what makes those guys great. We’ve just got to get him back to getting the turnovers.”

Two games in, Fitzpatrick is doing exactly that.

On the second defensive play of the season, Fitzpatrick read Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and leapt in front of receiver Tyler Boyd. Fitzpatrick snagged the ball and ran it back 31 yards to the end zone for a pick-six. Then, he forced overtime by blocking an extra point attempt as time expired. Against the Patriots, he baited Mac Jones into throwing over the middle to DeVante Parker, who appeared to have a significant advantage matched up with inside linebacker Robert Spillane. Fitzpatrick sprung into action, rocketing toward Parker to intercept Jones’ pass.

Part of what makes Fitzpatrick such a threat is his versatility and ability to play all over the field. It’s something he resisted initially in Miami, but he found he was most effective in that role in Pittsburgh.

“I feel like when people know where I'm at they either choose not to go there or they scheme something away from me,” Fitzpatrick said. “But I think moving me around to get me in, in different positions -- and I'm not saying every single play -- but just give the offense different looks.”

For all the electricity Fitzpatrick brings to the field with his playmaking, he’s quiet in the locker room. He’s among the team’s most prolific trash-talkers, but in his day-to-day, Fitzpatrick keeps to himself as he goes about his routine.

“He always comes in with his bag and his notes ready to write,” said running back Najee Harris, who’s known Fitzpatrick since he was 18 and was his teammate at Alabama. “... He's just really invested in football. … He's always here 'til about 7 p.m. I'm here late, and he's always here later than me.”

Fitzpatrick works late because he’s a self-described perfectionist and competitor. Even Harris, who’s a workaholic himself, said the most impressive thing about Fitzpatrick is his commitment to his craft.

“I don't think being a perfectionist on the football field is a bad thing,” Fitzpatrick said. “I feel like I learn from my mistakes. I don't dwell on them.

“... I've always been like that, but I've also been coached to be like that. … People hold me to a high standard because I hold myself to a high standard. And anything short of that, they checked me on it.”

That combination makes him a natural leader, even if he’s not an officially elected captain. Cornerback Levi Wallace, who also played with Fitzpatrick at Alabama and is one of his close friends, said he voted for Fitzpatrick as a captain along with Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt.

“Everybody knows he’s one of the leaders on the team, whether he walks out there for a coin toss or not,” Wallace said. “We know who he is and what he does for this team. The way he leads, he doesn’t have to talk too much. It’s about his actions. Just having a guy like that, who always just pushes you without even trying to push you. You want to work harder because he's working so hard.”

Right now, the goal is to help fill the void left by Watt. But Fitzpatrick could be in line for a major individual honor if he continues playing at the level he started this season.

“Great players, they’re going to go out there and play great,” safety Terrell Edmunds said. “He's going to go out there and put his best foot forward. And if he continues to have games like he did [against the Bengals], which I know he can, then definitely he's going to be up in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year.”