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Fitzpatrick: 'I am a competitor'

It's hard to believe when you think about it.

Minkah Fitzpatrick is heading into his third season with the Steelers, and he still hasn't taken part in a full, in-person offseason program with the team.

Fitzpatrick was traded to the Steelers, from the Miami Dolphins, in the early stages of the 2019 season, missing OTAs, minicamp, training camp and the preseason.

Heading into the 2020 season, the vast majority of the offseason was virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, until the team reported to Heinz Field for training camp.

And now, as he prepares for 2021, he doesn't know what to expect yet as the pandemic is still impacting the country.

"It is crazy," said Fitzpatrick. "The offseason is an important time for chemistry and forming good habits with your teammates. During the season everything is so crunched in it's hard to formulate good habits just out of the blue. The offseason, OTAs, minicamps, is the time you pull guys to the side and say let's start doing this, let's implement this and that, stuff like that. Not being able to do that has been tough.

"I feel like I am a guy who pulls other guys with me with what I do. Not being able to start it early on and have to force it has been tough.

"I prefer to be in person, but if we are virtual again it will work. The only thing is if it's virtual you get to do your own training so it's not as cookie cutter for a little bit longer. But then again you aren't around your team and do those things. There are pros and cons to both. I would rather be in the building with my teammates."

Take a look at photographs of Steelers S Minkah Fitzpatrick from the 2020 season

Only time will tell which way it is, but one way or another, the goal will be the same. Take it to the next level in 2021. In 2020, the Steelers defense finished ranked No. 1 in the AFC in overall defense and No. 1 against the pass, while ranking No. 3 overall in total defense in the NFL, and No. 3 against the pass in the league. They want more, though.

"I think we just have to keep it rolling," said Fitzpatrick. "There is a lot to learn and a lot to improve on. Last year we kind of dropped off toward the end of the year. We started to not look like ourselves. There is a lot to learn. Part of it was just overall execution. We did have guys get injured and go down. We had to put people in tough spots. Sometimes when that happens, we give up big plays and that makes it harder to win games. It's tough. It makes it tough on everybody on the team. But we have to help guys out, make sure we are doing the little things in practice to help people. We take responsibility for it, which I did, and get just get better from it.

"We want that number one ranking all the way around the board, so I think we have to be consistent throughout the season, with good habits, good practices. It's just setting the standard. The standard is to be No. 1 and that is what we are working for."

The defense came through with 27 takeaways in 2020, the second-highest total in the NFL, and were tied for first with 18 interceptions. And a lot of that is based on having better communication overall, especially on the backend of the defense.

"I feel like we are an underrated secondary to be honest," said Fitzpatrick. "We have a great defense. We have a great front seven. They do a great job and help us out a whole lot. We have a really great secondary that gets overlooked sometimes. We have Joe Haden, one of the best corners to ever play the game. We have Steve Nelson opposite of him, great player, great man-to-man cover guy. Then me and Terrell Edmunds at the safety spots. I think we are probably one of the best duos in the league, him at strong, me at free. We work off each other well.

"The front seven does a great job for us. There are times we don't hold up our end, but we can be the No. 1 secondary and people say these guys are for real. The amount of talent and experience we have back there is really good. Even the young guys that are up and coming and learning are talented. It's just a matter of polishing them up and getting some experience under their belt.

"I am not taking any credit away from our front seven. They are the best. When you have a front that is getting to the quarterback almost every snap you don't even have to look at the coverage on a play. But if you do look consistently, guys are matched up, man to man. We are on their heels, there aren't busted plays. There aren't too many big plays being given up. Of course, they are going to happen, but it's a rare occurrence. When it happens, you say pick it up, get it right, and don't let it happen again. We have the potential to be a great secondary. We have the potential to do great things as a secondary and unit. The defensive line is so talented and get to the quarterback so quick. Sometimes when I watch film, I don't even look at the coverage because it happens so fast in the front seven. I don't complain about it, but I think we have a very talented group that doesn't get the hype others do. One is because we aren't loud mouths that have to tell everybody how great we are. And also, because we have a very talented front seven."

It's that approach, a team over individual mentality, that makes it work for the secondary.

"It's the selflessness," said Fitzpatrick. "In a lot of defensive backs rooms, selflessness is not the number one attribute. We have a group that is willing to do whatever for the team. We understand when we do some things, give up some things, have roles that aren't the most fun, the most crowd awing experiences, we are doing what is best for the team and what is going to help the team win. We don't have any guys that complain when they are asked to do something that might not suit them the best. We just have a lot of guys that are willing to do things that not a lot of guys on other secondaries are willing to do. I would say that is probably our biggest thing, that makes us really good, on top of our talent."

It's also a group that is communicating better, on the field that is. It was something the secondary set out to do before the season started, and it's a box they were able to check when the season ended.

"It was crazy because it's something I said and a lot of guys said we needed to work on," said Fitzpatrick. "And that was probably one of the best things we did this year, our communication. Whether it was in the meeting room or on the field, we were communicating and talking, sharing everything we saw out there, and it helped us for sure."

Having that communication issue behind them will help with a change in the secondary. The team hired Grady Brown as the secondary coach, who will work with senior defensive assistant/secondary coach Teryl Austin. Fitzpatrick has a history with Brown and is excited about the addition.

"He recruited me when he was in South Carolina and we have stayed in contact throughout the years," said Fitzpatrick. "I was pretty excited when I found out that we were getting him in the building. It's a new face. It's new experiences, new wisdom. He has a lot of experience under his belt. It's going to be good to have him in the building.

"He is a good dude. That is a priority. He is a great guy. He is a family man. He knows what he is doing. He has the experience, he has the knowledge, he has the wisdom. He is a guy that I respect."

Speaking of respect, that is something the Fitzpatrick has plenty of for three young quarterbacks he knows the secondary is going to be facing for years to come in Baltimore's Lamar Jackson, Cincinnati's Joe Burrow and Cleveland's Baker Mayfield in the AFC North. It's a challenge he welcomes, knowing the young talent is going to test them multiple times a season.

"I love it. I love the fact that we have three Heisman winners and three great teams we play in our division," said Fitzpatrick. "It keeps you on your P's and Q's. These guys we are playing, when you look back 10, 20 years from now they will be the ones people are talking about as the best in the game. When you have the chance to compete against them twice a year, sometimes three times a year, it's awesome. I love it.

"I am a competitor and I am always going to want to go against the best of the best."