Can attention to detail deliver Minkah Fitzpatrick and the Steelers to the playoffs?

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PITTSBURGH -- A pristine, white logo sits in the middle of the speckled black and yellow carpet in the Pittsburgh Steelers' locker room.

Ringed in light gray with the Steelers' traditional yellow, red and blue diamonds offset by the black block letters bearing the team name, the logo itself isn't unusual, and neither is its placement.

What is unusual, though, are the 10 stanchions surrounding it, roping off the 6-foot wide circle from foot traffic with retractable, flat nylon belts.

Plenty of teams have superstitions and traditions that keep them from walking on their logos. The Steelers talked about it for years, debated whether they should issue a no-contact edict to the locker room.

Minkah Fitzpatrick didn't make an announcement. Didn't write a note on the large white board that greets every player when they enter the locker room. Didn't send a message to a team group chat.

Instead, after a brief conversation between the Steelers safety and the equipment staff, an order of stanchions was placed, delivered and assembled around the freshly steam-cleaned logo before the Steelers reconvened at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex for mandatory minicamp in June.

"I'm very, very big on the details," Fitzpatrick told ESPN. "I think that something as small as keeping our logo clean, it's simple, but it means a lot at the end of the day."

That's how the All-Pro safety approaches everything, silently and deliberately placing individual pieces until the collection forms a composite, mosaic masterpiece. It's what makes him arguably the best safety in the NFL, coming off a career-high six interceptions last season.

And as he enters his fifth season in Pittsburgh, Fitzpatrick is infusing the locker room with his conscientious habits in hopes that harping on those details returns the Steelers to the playoffs -- and to the kind of success that has eluded them since their last postseason win in 2016.

Playing for an organization built on a Super Bowl-winning tradition, the new wave of Steelers is the first to admit the six-year playoff win drought doesn't live up to the standard set by the old guard. Taking a cue from Fitzpatrick, the Steelers spent the preseason reinforcing the details they hope can return them to the upper echelon of contenders, beginning with the season opener against the 2022 NFC runners-up in the San Francisco 49ers (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Fox). "The definition was clear," Fitzpatrick said of the Steelers' standard. "We're just getting back to it."

MORE THAN 30 minutes after the final flurry of whistles blew to signal the end of a Steelers training camp practice, Fitzpatrick was still on the field.

Working one-on-one with equipment assistant Lou Balde, Fitzpatrick methodically worked through a series of catching drills with a tennis ball. Hundreds of extra catches after a two-hour practice, every single day. He first got the idea from wide receiver Diontae Johnson, who worked with Balde and the tennis balls frequently in 2021 to cure a bout of the drops. Now, it's part of Fitzpatrick's daily routine.

If he can track and catch a tennis ball one-handed with his non-dominant hand, he can certainly intercept any football that comes his way in a game.

"He's always been that guy," defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. "This is nothing new, and I think that's part of the reason why he's a great player. When you take a guy who obviously has outstanding ability -- he's got really good football sense -- but then he just works at the game so hard and [is] always trying to improve his craft. That's why he plays the way he does."

A couple years ago, Austin called Fitzpatrick over to talk during an 11-on-11 period in practice. Austin was standing in his usual spot behind the defense, and as Fitzpatrick joined his coach, he realized the benefits of watching practice from that vantage point.

Now, Fitzpatrick almost always takes a knee near Austin after finishing his own reps to watch the rest of the drill.

"That's how I play the game, so it's hard for me to watch where the free safety is going or where the free safety sees one of the other guys if I'm watching from the side," Fitzpatrick said. "It's not the same angle, so I like being behind.

"I like seeing it from the way I see it. ... It helps me process stuff better when I'm off the field."

Part of that processing happens after practice, when Fitzpatrick takes a seat next to quarterback Kenny Pickett in an extra office functioning as a makeshift computer lab. Since the Steelers added a pair of computers to the room earlier this year, the two New Jersey natives often watch film together, picking each other's brains for their unique perspectives.

"He's the quarterback of the defense," Pickett told ESPN. "He really knows what's going on offensively, defensively. His instincts -- I mean, he's the best in the game, and I don't even think it's close. it's good to have that guy on our team, and I get to learn from him."

Even as he helps educate Pickett, Fitzpatrick is a student of the game.

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Standing at his locker in the team facility, Fitzpatrick pulls a red moleskine notebook out of his bookbag. A white, block-letter 39 is on the cover. It's a gift from his best friend and Steelers teammate -- and former Alabama teammate -- Levi Wallace, left over from Wallace's days in Buffalo when he also wore No. 39. Not only does Fitzpatrick take detailed notes, he makes sure to review them before every practice and every game.

"I just like writing down a lot of things, it helps me memorize it," Fitzpatrick said. "I also like drawing formations and stuff like that, plays that they run out of specific formations. When people are aligned in certain spots, I write it down. So seeing it right before I go on the field definitely helps me process the information a little faster.

When he returned to the Steelers' Pittsburgh practice facility from training camp in Latrobe, Fitzpatrick had already filled up one college-ruled notebook with diagrams of plays, quotes from his coaches and copious notes from team and position meetings.

"He takes notes like an S.O.B," T.J. Watt said with a laugh. "I sit next to him, and he writes down every little detail and it's like, 'All right, dude. I think it's the same note from yesterday. You keep writing down the same stuff.'

"He's very attentive to all the details, and I think it rubs off on a lot of people because when you're that locked in, it makes you want to go to battle that much more for that guy."

EVERY PLAYER WHO has played for Nick Saban has heard it at one point.

How you do anything is how you do everything.

While Fitzpatrick's parents influenced him to be a neat kid and helped shape him into the kind of adult who keeps an "orderly" house, it was Saban who underscored the importance of taking care of the details.

"At Alabama, we did it and it was a no-go touching that logo," Fitzpatrick said. "It boiled down to little things, even smaller than that. Everybody had to wear the same socks, same cleats, same gloves.

"On a professional level, it's hard to enforce that, but I still think that you can enforce the little things and show guys like, 'Hey, this is the Steelers logo, this is what it means, this is what it's about and we're going to honor it and respect it.'"

In three seasons at Alabama, Fitzpatrick lost only three games en route to winning two SEC titles and two national championships.

The Crimson Tide didn't win those titles because they wore the same socks, but the culture created by Saban and his attention to the details showed Fitzpatrick what it took to be successful.

"Nick is a winner, first and foremost coming from Alabama, [winning is] all those guys did there," Peterson said. "[Fitzpatrick] has been around that block. He understands what it takes and he just wants to bring over some of those attributes that he had in college. It's college, but winning is winning. Once you have that taste of winning, you know how to win and you want to bring guys along with you."

In his first NFL season in Miami, Fitzpatrick lost three times as many games as in his entire college career. After he was traded to Pittsburgh in 2019, he lost twice as many games as he did in Tuscaloosa. And in five NFL seasons, Fitzpatrick has never won a playoff game.

That, of course, isn't abnormal for players who transition from dominant college football programs to the NFL. The parity of professional football largely prevents the same kind of dynasties from forming in the NFL. But Fitzpatrick's personal mission to reestablish a winning culture makes him a foundational piece to the future of the franchise.

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"It says a lot about how much he cares," said Steelers secondary coach Grady Brown, who first met Fitzpatrick during his college recruitment. "I think it says a lot about how much he puts into things, and it says a lot about -- and I don't mean this in a negative way -- but it says a lot about his pride. We talk about pride as a negative thing, but pride can be a positive thing, also."

The emphasis Fitzpatrick placed on defining the details within the locker room carried over to this year's training camp, where players from every side of the ball spoke of cohesiveness. From the offense under the second-year quarterback Pickett to the defensive front anchored by Cameron Heyward and returning starter Larry Ogunjobi. The unity the team felt at the end of last season, when it followed a 2-6 start with a 7-2 finish, carried over to this season, to this locker room.

"I don't want to say the details were overlooked," Fitzpatrick said about previous seasons in Pittsburgh, "sometimes there was a lot of gray. And I think gray causes assumption and confusion. And on the football field, it's not a good thing. ... I think in recent years we've had a lot of guys that had that hesitancy that might've been great athletes, but they were playing a step slow because they weren't 110% sure.

"... I think we've been trying to clear that up."

NO AMOUNT OF vacuuming could erase the stains that permeated the Steelers' locker room logo late last last season.

Straight off the natural grass practice field, players left trails of footprints as they trudged across the logo wearing mud-encrusted cleats en route to their lockers or the showers. Reporters with road salt clinging to their winter boots stood on the outskirts of it to gather in front of a backdrop for interviews.

For years, there were murmurs among the players about doing something to protect the logo, starting a new tradition for an organization that embraced old-school pageantry and tradition.

But no one took action, so Fitzpatrick took initiative.

He consulted briefly with fellow defensive leader Heyward, the longest-tenured Steeler and the last remaining bridge of the old guard to the next generation, then went to the equipment staff to get the ball rolling.

"It was Minkah taking the reins, and [I] was just providing input back," Heyward said. "... You're not going to shy away from a good idea."

To Fitzpatrick, deliberately protecting the logo mirrored the way everything should be within a winning team -- rules, boundaries and roles clearly defined.

"I was just tired of seeing it dirty," Fitzpatrick said. "We had gotten a new one maybe two or three years ago in the locker room. It was fresh, clean, white, and then during OTAs, I noticed it getting really dirty. It's not like people are doing it on purpose.

"But at the end of the day, we used to take pride in little stuff like that. And I'm a guy that likes order, and I believe that when you allow one thing to slip, everything else starts to slip." The logo isn't the only change to the Steelers' locker room this year.

After talking with 13-year NFL veteran Patrick Peterson, who joined the Steelers in free agency, the pair of defensive backs decided to implement a new system for discarding dirty laundry after practice. Instead of tossing everything into one bin and leaving it up to the equipment staff to sort, the Steelers now have specific bins dedicated to towels, hoodies and jerseys.

"It makes it a lot easier for the equipment guys to clean," Peterson said. "Little things go a long way in this league. You never know what little detail may show up in the game that other teams may look over that you execute at a high level, and that's what it's all about. Just having guys understand that the little things do matter."

A clean logo doesn't win football games. Neither does organizing the laundry. But there's cohesion created from taking care of the details, a cohesion that makes the Steelers believe this year could be different.

"I think we'll start to see it come Week 1, and then Week 2 and Week 3 and Week 4," Fitzpatrick said. "When we just start getting better week to week because we're paying attention to the details, and we're not making the same mistakes over and over again.

"I think that's just paying attention to the details, and it carries over into our play."