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Minkah: 'Cohesion is extremely important'

Wanting to stay together: When the season ends, one of the first things people start to talk about is, who will be back.

If safety Minkah Fitzpatrick could have it his way, the entire Steelers secondary would be back in 2022.

There will be multiple players who become free agents, including cornerback Joe Haden, and Fitzpatrick wants the secondary to stay intact.

"My hope is to get everybody back," said Fitzpatrick. "I think we had a really good secondary this year. We had our bumps in the road, but I think we had a really good secondary this year. I think we were challenged a lot. If we can bring as many people back as we can, I think that's what we need to do.

"Cohesion is extremely important in the secondary. It's not just about how fast you can play or how great you can play. It's about how we communicate by being on the same page. By everybody seeing things the same way. So hopefully we can bring back as many people as we can."

The Steelers defense finished the regular season ranked 24th overall in the NFL, but ninth against the pass. Fitzpatrick said he believes the defense can get back to where it was in years past, where they ranked near, or at the top, in statistical categories. He didn't elaborate on how to get to that point but said one of the keys is everybody just doing their job.

"I think we just got to get back to doing our jobs, the little things, executing, communicating," said Fitzpatrick. "Winning one-on-ones. When you do that, when watch your P's and Q's, cross your T's and dot your I's, teams can't move the ball on you. They can't run, they can't throw. They can't escape the pocket. They can't do numerous things that allow you to play free.

"I play with an aggressive, physical mentality but if I'm not in the right position it's never going to show. If I'm not looking at the right things."

He said it: Fitzpatrick on T.J. Watt and if he should be NFL Defensive Player of the Year:

"His ability just to make plays. That is what he specializes at," said Fitzpatrick. "When plays are needed, T.J. shows up. He's a guy that is passionate about this game. There's not too many people in the building, that are in the building more than him, taking care of his body, watching film, in the weight room. He loves the game, is passionate about the game. Cares about his teammates.

"I think if he doesn't win it this year, it's crazy. It's rigged for sure if he doesn't win. I'm definitely blessed to be part of a team with a player like him."

Fighting through it: For NFL rookies, their first season can be a long one. And the 2021 regular season was longer than ever for them with 17 games. 

Tight end Pat Freiermuth admits that there was a point this season when it started to hit, especially after going all out from his senior season, through draft preparation, offseason workouts, training camp, and then the season. 

"Overall, I did a good job adjusting to the style of the NFL, the long season, stuff like that," said Freiermuth. "I think there was a point, later on in the season, after Week 10 or 11, that I kind of got a little complacent for a couple of weeks. The Browns game and the Ravens game started to pick back up and I just got to make sure I stay consistent the whole year. 

"But I think overall I had a great season and I think I've met some of my goals and I will continue to work."

Freiermuth said he talked to a variety of people when he hit that point, with everyone giving him the right advice to fight his way through it. 

"I was in football for I think 18 months, going back to college, to train for the draft, rookie minicamp, OTAs. We didn't have a break," said Freiermuth. "I think I got to a point where it was a lot and stuff like that. It took me some time to talk to my loved ones, my mom and my dad, and even some guys on the team like Ben (Roethlisberger), stuff like that. Especially (Eric) Ebron, Zach (Gentry), just to kind of talk to them about how to get through that kind of complacency. 

"I think they helped out a lot in that and they're credited for helping me get through that and helping me kind of push towards the final stretch of the season."

Major growth: It's not often a seventh-round draft picks comes in and plays the type of role that defensive back Tre Norwood did this year, but it's not often guys like Norwood slip through the cracks to become a seventh-round pick.

Norwood was called out all season for his intelligence, his diversity, and his talent by coaches and teammates, and it showed on the field.

Norwood, who played in all 17 regular season games, starting three, as well as playing in the Wild Card Round game, said he continually felt more comfortable as the season went on, and for this young player, the sky is the limit.

"I feel like I've developed a lot," said Norwood. "With it being a 17-week season, 18 with the playoff game, I feel like each and every week I was able to grow and better myself as a player and just getting comfortable being out there on the field. With it being my first year, and I think that goes back to having Coach T.A. (Teryl Austin), having a coach like Coach Grady (Brown), having those guys in the room taking me under their wings. Huge shout out to them because they were a major part in my growth throughout the season.

"I feel like I'm much more comfortable than I was from the beginning of the season but very far from where I want to be. I want to continue to grow and elevate and continue to get better."