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Fitzpatrick always striving for perfection
Minkah Fitzpatrick is a competitor who doesn't just like to win, he likes to dominate
By Teresa Varley Sep 24, 2022


Webster's Dictionary defines it as, 'A person who refuses to accept any standard short of perfection.'

For the Steelers defense, it's defined in two words.

Minkah Fitzpatrick.

“I don’t just like winning. I like dominating,” - Minkah Fitzpatrick

"A lot of us want to be really good at what we do," said defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. "Minkah, he is a perfectionist. He is always searching for perfection, and it doesn't matter what it is. It doesn't matter if you were playing him in checkers, he is going to try and be perfect and beat you every time. If you are playing golf, and he never golfed, he will try and beat you. That is just how he is wired. That makes him a little different."

Fitzpatrick laughed at the mention of the word perfectionist. But with the laughter came the acknowledgement that well, yes, it's true.

"I am a competitor," said Fitzpatrick. "I like winning."

And then he took it the extra step, the step that makes Fitzpatrick among the unique ones. The one that makes Fitzpatrick a perfectionist.

"I don't just like winning. I like dominating," he said emphatically. "I like when things go how I picture them in my head. Not in a weird way, but more like, I did this and can expect this kind of result. Not a perfectionist in a sense where I freak out if things aren't the way I want them. I just adapt and try to get back to the way they should be."

A prime example was visible in training camp at Saint Vincent College over the summer, when Fitzpatrick was going against the team's top receivers in drills, and they got the best of him early on. Instead of just calling it a day like some might, he kept going until he found success.

"I was doing a lot of one-on-ones with the top receivers," said Fitzpatrick. "I lost my first two reps and I wanted to keep going because even if I lose a rep, I can learn from that rep. Obviously I am mad that I lost the rep, but at the same time, the more times I go against Diontae (Johnson), George (Pickens), and Chase (Claypool), it's the more I get to watch myself go against these top receivers and break it down and say I can be more patient, I can be more physical. It's better to get those extra reps than it is to hide in the back and not step outside that comfort zone."

Factor something else into the big picture that Fitzpatrick did with the one-on-ones. As a free safety, he doesn't find himself in many situations where he is covering a receiver one-on-one, but he still ran through drill after drill, rep after rep.

"I think very few people would put themselves in that position," said Claypool. "His job isn't to cover receivers one-on-one, so the fact that he did, lost a couple of reps and kept going, it proves the type of player he is, that he is always trying to get better."

Claypool wasn't surprised by it, though, because it's competition that drives Fitzpatrick in everything.

"I love competing," said Fitzpatrick with a true passion in his voice. "When you are competing, you are learning about yourself and the guys you are competing against. I am always trying to learn, see what I can get better at and see what I am already good at so I can attack the areas I am weak at, or not as good at.

"I want to always keep challenging myself, keep doing new things. In camp I did new things and the coaches kept challenging me. We brought in some new coaches this year, and it gives an outside perspective. They have been challenging me with different perspectives. It takes you out of your normal comfort zone."

There is a reason Fitzpatrick can step out of that comfort zone. It's because while on one hand he strives for perfection, on the other he doesn't let it become a burden, something that can be more harmful than good.

"Some guys have that competitive spirit, but his is off the charts," said Austin. "And it doesn't saddle him down. Some guys it can saddle them down, but it doesn't with him. If they aren't perfect, they can go in the tank, and it gets in their head. He doesn't let it get in his head. He moves on to the next play."

That is the case now. But Fitzpatrick is like the rest of us, he is human, and in the past shaking things off and moving on wasn't always the easiest.

"That isn't how I always was," he admitted with a bit of a sheepish grin. "I would get angry and start playing angry. That can be a good thing, but it can also lead to you making mistakes you don't normally make. I learned over the last two years you are going to get beat. You want to be upset that you lost a rep. If you don't get upset, then you aren't really a competitor. But you don't want to be fueled by anger when you go into your next rep. You want to put it in the back of your mind and learn from the last rep and approach the next rep with a chip on your shoulder because you lost the last rep, not because you are emotionally tripping."

Sure, Fitzpatrick has lost reps not just in practice, but in games. When he does, though, he fixes it. Austin raves over the fact that Fitzpatrick is a player who never makes the same mistake twice. The reason is a combination of him being able to let go when that does happen and his intelligence.

"He is going to keep going at it. He is going to figure it out," said Austin. "He is smart. He is going to say if I am doing this, and that isn't working, I have to do something to make this thing work. I have to make sure I beat whoever I am competing against.

"He gets in the lab, he studies. In the offseason he is texting me about what about this and that. His mind is always working. He is looking at something he might have done well thinking I can do that better; we can do that better. Maybe there is something I am missing.

"His mind is always moving, always working. That is good because whenever you get in a game and have to make adjustments and make different things happen, he is always thinking of those and that helps you."

It's that intelligence, that approach that have many raving about his play. Former Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor was at training camp and while Fitzpatrick was out with a wrist injury, Taylor would stand alongside him and watch practice from the middle of the field.

"He is different. There is a reason we gave up a first-round draft pick for him," said Taylor. "When you see a guy who is different, you have to pull the trigger. That is what the Steelers did, and it came back 10-fold.

"What I mean by different is very cerebral. He is a coach on the field. You have a coach on the field, and he is very instinctive. You can't coach instincts. That is what Minkah does. It's a calming, soothing feeling when that guy is on the field. When you have that kind of caliber player on the field, everybody feels good about it. Whether you're a defensive lineman or in the secondary, it's just like having a good quarterback on the field. You know when you have Minkah you have a chance."

For Fitzpatrick, that approach is simply matter of fact. He doesn't think it's special, it's just how things should be. Because in his mind, the learning never stops.

"I like knowing what is going on around me," said Fitzpatrick. "Being able to dissect and understand the game allows me to play faster and more instinctively. When I am just guessing and not knowing what is going on around me it slows me down.

"It's a combination of film study and learning from your mistakes. Not beating yourself up from your mistakes but learning from them. Not having too much pride that you won't watch your mistakes and your mess ups. I break that down a lot and digest the coaching they gave me. I have a lot of experience on the field and that helps me a lot."

Fitzpatrick has been a mainstay for the Steelers defense since he was acquired via a trade with the Miami Dolphins following Week 2 of the 2019 NFL season.

During his time with the Steelers, he has twice been selected Associated Press First-Team All-Pro (2019, 2020) and was voted to the Pro Bowl in both of those seasons.

"What you get with Minkah is a guy that is one of the best guys in the league in the backend," said Austin. "He is a difference maker. What he does for you and the team specifically is quarterbacks aren't going to just let the ball fly down the field if they feel that the guy has an opportunity to pick it and change the game. That makes a big difference in what you do and how you do things."

In 2021 Fitzpatrick had his first 100 tackle season when led the team with 124 tackles, 84 of them solo stops, along with two interceptions, nine passes defensed, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.

But he wants more. And he expects more.

"Greatness," said Fitzpatrick. "That's it."

And with that greatness, he is hoping to be in the running for the Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year when the 2022 season ends, an award teammate T.J. Watt won last year.

"That is the goal," said Fitzpatrick. "Competing with him for it."

His work ethic, his approach, and his drive set an incredible example for younger players not just in the secondary, but across the board on the Steelers roster.

"It's good to have a guy like that because it does rub off on younger guys," said Austin. "They know they can't come in there and do their job halfway because this guy knows exactly what they are supposed to do and where they are supposed to be. It raises the level of the people around you. That is what you want. That is what your great players do. They aren't just great by themselves. They raise the level of the players around them.

"Even in camp when Minkah wasn't practicing, I guarantee you when he was back there, he wasn't just watching the secondary. He was watching the defensive line, the linebackers, watching how that stuff worked up front because that gives him a better understanding of, if I am back here and it's done right, this is where the ball should go. And if it's done wrong, here is where it might spit out. I guarantee you that is what he is thinking in his mind. He is not just watching one position he plays. He is watching how the whole thing is put together and how it fits for him."

It's all a testament to the leadership Fitzpatrick brings to the table. He might not be the most vocal guy, might not be the rah-rah guy, but he doesn't need to be.

"I am a lead by example type of guy," said Fitzpatrick. "I learned that from my father. My father is a great man, great father. Worked hard. He didn't say a lot. It was monkey see; monkey do. I just copied and pasted what he did and put my own little twist on it. Anytime you are around successful people, or someone who is good at their job, whether it's your father, mother, or a CEO, if they are good at it you can learn from them just by watching how they work. That is what I try to emulate, live by and work the right way and people are attracted to that.

"A good leader knows when he has to be direct or blunt with somebody. A good leader also knows when he has to be uplifting and energetic and people need to feed off him. There are days when I am a little bit of a jerk, but that is what that person needed, or I needed that day. There are days when I am more lighthearted, loud mouthed and joking and trying to pull people along. I feel like my father exemplified that 100 percent and I am that."

It's all of the above, and a whole lot more, that motivated the Steelers to sign Fitzpatrick to a new five-year contract this offseason, keeping him in the black and gold long-term.

While Fitzpatrick could have bragged about the new contract, thinking it was all about him, he did the opposite.

"When it came out that he signed, he sent a group text to all of the defensive backs and he thanked them," revealed Austin. "It's a team sport. As great as he is, if the guys around him aren't doing things, aren't elevating their play, he doesn't get it. You can sometimes be a great player, and nobody knows because you aren't with a good defense, you aren't with a great team. He was appreciative of how he got there. He didn't get there alone. It took hard work of him and others.

"I can't say enough about Minkah. Having Minkah on the team makes my job easier. He is the kind of guy when you think about Steelers who played here a long time, which is what they were…smart, tough, big game football players who elevated players around him. He fits the bill."

Fitzpatrick is already off to a fast start for the 2022 season. In the season opener, he intercepted Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and returned it 31-yards for a touchdown. He became the fourth player in NFL history to have an interception return for a touchdown in four of his first five seasons. It was also the fifth defensive touchdown of his career, tied for third in the NFL among active players in that category. He followed that performance with an interception of Patriots quarterback Mac Jones in Week 2.

But he wants more.

"There is always more you can do," said Fitzpatrick. "Always."

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