It might have just been a formality, but when the Steelers exercised the fifth-year option on Minkah Fitzpatrick, the talented safety felt really good about it.
"You definitely appreciate it," said Fitzpatrick. "It guarantees me another year in Pittsburgh. Great city, great team, great organization. It's a blessing. Getting that sigh of relief. You don't have to worry about what if, what if, for another two years. It's definitely a blessing. I am happy it happened. I want to make them proud of their decision."
From the looks of things the last few years, it seems like it will be easy for Fitzpatrick to make them proud.
Fitzpatrick was traded to the Steelers from the Miami Dolphins in the early stages of the 2019 season. He has been a staple in the secondary ever since, helping the defense finish 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 in 2020.
This year, though, there will be a different look in the secondary. Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton are no longer in black and gold, both players who had an impact on the overall success of the defense. Fitzpatrick said no matter who is plugged in, they just have to continue to work on their execution and everything will pan out just fine.
"Something that we did well last year was our overall execution, but at the same time it was something we could have worked on toward the later part of the year," said Fitzpatrick. "No matter who is out there, as long as we execute and play at a high level, we will be good. If it's young guys, if it's old guys, if it's new guys, as long as we go out there and are on the same page, it's hard to beat us. We are all athletes. We can all cover, we can all jump, we can all catch. The only way teams can really beat themselves in the league is they don't execute."
It will be the ability to execute that will play a major role in the defense putting up the kind of numbers they did last year when it came to turnovers. The defense came through with 27 takeaways in 2020, the second-highest total in the NFL, and were tied for first with 18 interceptions.
"It's the overall execution," said Fitzpatrick. "It doesn't matter who is out there, they're going to have to execute our game plan. We have a simple game plan. It works. We just have to go out there and play hard."
Fitzpatrick said he doesn't expect his role to change much in 2021, as he put it, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' But he would like to take his game to the next level in several areas.
"I would say for me, we're a younger team this year, a newer team, so just stepping up leadership, being more vocal, pulling guys, making them do extra whether it be film or today after practice doing extra, going that extra mile," said Fitzpatrick. "Also, for me personally, mastering the fundamentals of this game. That's what makes great players great and elite players elite. The people who master the fundamentals and don't stray away from it. What coach said today, the things that make you a great college player are the same things that make you a great NFL player. Guys stop doing it because they get complacent, they get tired. That is what really separates the great from the elite. Just continue to work on those fundamentals."
This year is the first time that Fitzpatrick has taken part in OTAs with his Steelers teammates. He missed them his first year in black and gold because he was traded early in the season, and in 2020 there weren't OTAs. So, this year he is taking advantage of everything and using them to get ready for 2021.
"Just the fundamentals of how we play, just establishing that as a team," said Fitzpatrick of why they are important. "This season there are a lot of new faces. When you come out here early you get to set the tone of this is the standard of this is how we operate, how we communicate. From the point where we step in the door even to when we go out to dinner at night, this is how we operate. It's good to have us in the building."
And speaking of that, a perfect example he gave after Tuesday's OTAs was Ben Roethlisberger. Fitzpatrick had the luxury of working against Roethlisberger on Tuesday because the veteran quarterback, in his 18th season, has been taking part in voluntary OTAs on a regular basis, something that is benefiting everyone on the field and giving the secondary some good looks to prepare for.
"I am happy Ben is out here," said Fitzpatrick. "He has been doing this a while. He doesn't have to be out here competing against us. He chooses to come out and compete. When he is out there everyone gets better.
"It's a great look for me. Not too many quarterbacks can do the things he does. The very first play he held me in the field a little bit and made a throw backside. Not too many guys are doing that across the league. Me going up against that, I get to go back and watch film, or on the field say I could have done this better, remind myself of the fundamentals when I go against a guy like Ben. This year we are going against a lot of guys that are high caliber. Him coming out here, I respect it, appreciate it. We are going to see some great looks. Everybody gets better when Ben is out there."
He said it: Fitzpatrick on No. 1 pick Najee Harris, who like Fitzpatrick played at Alabama:
"He is a great player. I expect him to be there. He is a tough guy. He is fast out of the backfield. He was picked No. 1overall by the Steelers for a reason. He is a Bama guy too, so he has that high expectations on him for that too."
The Steelers participate in day 7 of the 2021 Organized Team Activities at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex