LATROBE, Pennsylvania — During a recent Steelers practice, Minkah Fitzpatrick went against wideout George Pickens in one-on-one drills. It was not only a chance for not only the heralded rookie to test his mettle against an All-Pro-caliber safety, it was also an opportunity for Fitzpatrick to test some new techniques against an up-and-coming player.
For several moments, the Pickens-Fitzpatrick matchup drew everyone’s attention, from the players and coaches taking part in practice to the fans and the media who were watching close by. In the end, the young buck earned a hard-fought win, but the real winner was the Steelers, as one of the best players wasn’t afraid to put himself out there with her peers and thousands of others watching.
“He’s a great player,” Fitzpatrick told CBS Sports after practice. “We’re challenging him in different ways, me lining up in front of him was one of those ways. Haven’t lined up in front of him a whole lot this whole camp, so we wanted throw something different at him. It’s different for me, too. I haven’t done that in a while, so it was good. Both of us were outside of our comfort zone, challenging and pushing each other, just working.”
The word working is synonymous with Fitzpatrick, who is typically one of the last Steelers to leave the field following practice. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that former Alabama teammate Najee Harris is also notorious for putting in extra work after practice.
“That’s probably because Minkah makes him,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told the media on Thursday. “Minkah’s kind of his big bro. He’s known him since he was 18, so those still waters run pretty deep.”
When looking at the greatest trades in Steelers history, the one to acquire Fitzpatrick from Miami in September of 2019 may be right at the top. The Steelers acquired Fitzpatrick (who at that time was at the start of his second season) while swapping several draft picks with the Dolphins that included their first-round pick in the 2020 Draft.
Fitzpatrick, who is still only 25 years old, has established himself as one of the NFL‘s best defensive players since arriving in Pittsburgh. He was a big play machine during his first two years with the Steelers, as he intercepted nine passes, forced two fumbles, recovered three more and scored three defensive touchdowns. Fitzpatrick’s ball magnet ability helped him earn consecutive All-Pro honors.
Last season, Fitzpatrick’s impact was felt in an entirely different way. With Pittsburgh’s defensive line barraged by injuries, Fitzpatrick focused more on being a run-stopper than a ball-hawking play-maker. He was often tasked with preventing moderate from turning into big gains. While his turnover production went down as a result, Fitzpatrick led the Steelers with 124 tackles, a career-high. He also still came down with two interceptions along with a forced fumble and a recovered fumble.
“I’m going to go out there and do whatever Coach T asks me to do and whatever the team needs me to do in order to win,” Fitzpatrick said of his willingness to adjust his game. “Last year, it was making a lot of tackles, and the year before that, it was getting a lot of turnovers. Whatever this year brings, this year brings.”
It’s that selflessness that has endeared Fitzpatrick to his teammates and the Steelers’ organization. It also likely played a role in the Steelers signing him with a four-year extension this offseason that at the time made him the league’s highest-paid safety.
“It’s definitely an honor,” Fitzpatrick said of his contract extension. “Pittsburgh is a great city to play for and play in. I’m blessing, I’m honored. Just going to keep working and keep getting better every year and every day.”
After playing for two NFL franchises in a little over a season, Fitzpatrick has found a longterm home in Pittsburgh, where he may ultimately join the list of former defensive standouts that donned the black and gold for the majority of their careers. And like those players from the past, Fitzpatrick’s desire to excel on the field goes hand-in-hand with his desire to help everyone around him succeed.
“Minkah is a serious competitor, and it shows in environments like this,” Tomlin said. “He always wants in. He wants to cover receivers, he wants to tackle running backs, he wants to blitz. He’s just a football player. He’s a guy that loves football. He’s a guy that loves competition, and he’s just really a good guy to have in an environment like this because it’s never a down day with him.
“He’s always about it, and he’s always ready to work.”