Group effort

If Tre Norwood ends up playing significant snaps at free safety on Sunday in Los Angeles, it'll be because the Steelers are confident filling in for Minkah Fitzpatrick isn't anything the rookie seventh-round pick can't handle.

It wouldn't be the first time.

Norwood repeatedly shifted from the slot-cornerback position in the five-defensive backs "nickel" back into Fitzpatrick's spot in the six-defensive backs "dime" in the regular-season opener at Buffalo, an adjustment that allowed the Steelers to deploy Fitzpatrick closer to the line of scrimmage in that particular sub-package.

The Bills' high-octane offense managed 16 points in a game in which Norwood played 80 percent of the defensive snaps.

Norwood also took over for Fitzpatrick at free safety for one snap in last Sunday's 16-16 tie with the Lions.

If sixth-year pro Miles Killebrew gets the nod in Fitzpatrick's spot initially, it'll be his fifth NFL start (and first with the Steelers).

Killebrew was coached for two seasons at his first NFL stop in Detroit by Teryl Austin, the Steelers' current senior defensive assistant/secondary coach, so there's familiarity if not a track record.

Either way, the Steelers "anticipate" being without Fitzpatrick against the Chargers, head coach Mike Tomlin said this week.

If it comes to that, they'll do so more with expectation than consternation over the temporarily loss of their two-time, first-ream All-Pro to the Reserve/COVID-19 list.

They'll also do so understanding the gravity of the challenge.

"He definitely makes an impact just because his leadership out there," said strong safety and fellow starting safety Terrell Edmunds. "He's a very vocal guy. He's a guy you can still count on being in the right spots.

"Even though he doesn't have the interceptions or turnovers like people may want him to have he's still playing good football for us."

Good enough that filling the void left in Fitzpatrick's absence might ultimately require a group effort.

"I'd imagine it's gonna be a multi-person discussion," Tomlin assessed on Tuesday. "Just like the replacement of (former slot-cornerback) Mike Hilton has been a multi-person endeavor.

"When you've got significant players, those that are multitalented, usually that's the case as opposed to putting the onus on one individual."

The Steelers also have former Raiders first-round safety Karl Joseph on the practice squad as a potential option.

Joseph played two defensive snaps in the Steelers' 27-19 victory over Denver on Oct. 10. But he's in his sixth NFL season and has started 49 of 64 career games played in previous tenures with Oakland and Cleveland.

"Minkah has a well-rounded skillset," Tomlin continued. "You put him in any circumstances, he's gonna perform relatively well. It may divide the labor up a little bit more, but that's what we do.

"We look at the hand that's dealt, we play the hand that's dealt, and we put ourselves in a position to win."

The on-field sorting out process began this afternoon in practice.

"The first day we had some mixing and matching," Edmunds reported. "We're just trying to figure out exactly how we're gonna do it, how we're gonna go into the game to win the football game, put people in the best positions, put people in the right roles to go out there and make plays."

Edmunds also said he made a point of checking in with Fitzpatrick today, in part to acknowledge Fitzpatrick's 25th birthday.

"Happy Birthday to my dawg 'Mink,'" Edmunds said. "I talked to him today. He said he's doing well, just getting back healthy again."

Norwood opened the tie with the Lions as the "nickel" cornerback, a position he wound up sharing with Arthur Maulet as the game progressed. Norwood also appeared in the "dime" against the Lions.

He was attractive to the Steelers initially because of his ball skills (six interceptions in three seasons at Oklahoma, including five last season), and his versatility (Norwood played cornerback, slot-cornerback and safety for the Sooners).

He arrived as advertised in terms of his ability to grasp the defensive scheme and multiple positions.

"A very smart young man," defensive coordinator Keith Butler maintained back in training camp. "He's like (cornerback) Cam Sutton. They're smart enough to play more than one position."

Killebrew, a fourth-round pick out of Utah State in 2016, has played almost exclusively on special teams after appearing in 15 percent of the Lions' defensive snaps as a rookie and 32 percent the following season.

Killebrew appeared in a season-high 11 defensive snaps (15 percent) in Sunday's tie after having played just six in the first eight games combined. He was used periodically in the "base" defense in place of cornerback James Pierre, who had been called upon to replace Joe Haden (foot) in the first half.

Killebrew, too, made an impression in his Steelers' debut when he blocked a punt that was returned 9 yards for a touchdown by inside linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III at Buffalo.

Killebrew (6-foot-2, 222 pounds) is a little bigger than Norwood (6-foot, 194) but Norwood is a little faster (he ran a 4.58 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, which bettered the 4.65 Killebrew clocked in 2016).

Joseph (5-10, 200) established a reputation as a hitter before being drafted 14th overall in 2016 out of West Virginia.

They're among the candidates to be tasked with taking on a larger role in Fitzpatrick's absence, but they're far from alone in that regard.

"We need everyone to step up," Edmunds insisted. "We need the corners to play a little bit better. We need the linebackers to play better. We need the safeties to play better so whoever is out there, just make him feel as comfortable as we can."

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