Headed home: Tonight will be a 'homecoming' of sorts for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, playing in Miami for the first time since the Dolphins traded him to the Steelers in the early part of the 2019 season.
While the Miami area is a place Fitzpatrick calls home during the offseason, playing there will be a completely different thing and bring back some emotion.
"My first NFL team," said Fitzpatrick. "It's going to be my first time going back there and playing at Hard Rock. It will be nostalgic for sure."
Fitzpatrick has twice been selected Associated Press First-Team All-Pro (2019, 2020) and was voted to the Pro Bowl twice since being traded to the Steelers. He said he is a different player than he was when he was with the Dolphins, and it shows.
"A lot different player," said Fitzpatrick. "A lot more mature in my game. I am better athletically. Just a combination of that allows me to be the player I am today."
Another week, another test: The tests keep coming for the Steelers defense, this week it's in the form of the Miami Dolphins who are 3-3 but getting starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa back into the mix.
"He is unique. He is a great player, a great quarterback," said defensive back Tre Norwood. "Our main thing is for us to make sure we are doing what we need to do on the defensive side of the ball. Playing fundamental football. Playing together. Playing hard, smart, fast. Just doing our job. That is the main thing. Everybody doing their job, playing that team ball. The plays will come. We have to make sure we are making them."
Tagovailoa hasn't played since a Sept. 29 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals that had him in the concussion protocol, and the Dolphins have lost their last two games. While he is the engine that makes their train go, he isn't the only weapon the defense will have to keep an eye out for.
"They have a solid team," said safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. "He has a lot of great weapons around him. Two great running backs. Great receivers. They went out and acquired a lot of speed. He gets the ball to them in different ways. Whether it's handing it off or throwing it, he gets it to his playmakers."
One of those playmakers is receiver Jaylen Waddle. He has 30 receptions for 533 yards on the season, for a 17.77-yard average. And he has speed, along with receiver Tyreek Hill, and that is something that can kill a defense.
"He is another speedster," said Fitzpatrick of Waddle. "He is a guy who can take the top off the defense fast. When he catches the ball, if it is in the short area, he has the quickness and toughness to make people miss."
A new challenge: The offensive line is coming off what center Mason Cole would categorize as a 'decent' day in protection, but he knows there can't be a letdown this week against the Miami Dolphins.
"I think we protected decently. Maybe not our best game," said Cole. "That was a really good front, and the biggest thing is we got the win. I think this next group is really good. The front seven is really good. The d-line is really good. They pressure a lot.
"Another challenge for us. A new challenge. A lot of it will be on us."
With rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett coming off a game that put him in the concussion protocol, which he has been cleared from, he other challenge will be keeping him upright and healthy. The line won't approach this game any different than any other game because of Pickett's situation, because keeping their quarterback safe is always the top priority.
"We're always on the highest alert for protection," said Cole. "We never want any of those guys to get hit. With him going down last game and possibly coming back this game, I think it's a more of an alert. But our senses and techniques will always be at the highest level to make sure that doesn't ever happen."
It's overblown: In today's NFL, it's not uncommon on a weekly basis to have a player or coach who has previously been with the upcoming opponent. Oftentimes they are asked what they can share about a team, their tendencies, personnel, etc.
This week it's been senior defensive assistant/linebackers coach Brian Flores who some expected to have insight into what the Miami Dolphins do. Flores was the Dolphins head coach from 2019-21, but Tomlin said using some as a resource is something that can be 'overblown.'
"It is a useful resource, but in the coaching profession we all feel it's overblown to be quite honest with you," said Tomlin. "It's not about what coaches know. It's about what coaches can convey to players and it's about what players can recall in an instant in the moment before a ball snaps. And so oftentimes you can sit around the classroom and the coach can provide quality insight and the player can nod in agreement…yeah, I see that and understand that. But the minute they get on their feet and the bullets are about to start flying or a snap is imminent, those things become less relevant.
"So, I understand what you mean when you ask that. But we've got to put together a good plan. Our players have got to understand the plan. They've got to go out and execute the plan and very little of that has to do with where Coach Flores worked last year, his intimate knowledge of members of their football team etc. This is a small fraternity particularly at this level. Those storylines exist every week and that's just our mentality regarding them."
Whether he provides insight or not, there is plenty Flores is providing the Steelers defense this year.
"He is a quality coach. He's a great communicator," said Tomlin. "You don't ascend in the business the way he has without having certain tools and he has consistently displayed those tools since he's been here. But again, I don't think any of us are surprised by that. That's why we had so much excitement when we had an opportunity to acquire him."
A look at player arrivals before the Steelers' Week 7 game against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium
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