Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 18.
Marcus Allen, John Battle, Jordan Dangerfield, Sean Davis, Terrell Edmunds, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Tray Matthews
(Free Agent Scorecard: 2; 1 unrestricted – Sean Davis; 1 restricted – Jordan Dangerfield)
A LAST LOOK AT 2019
Dates serve as historical mile-markers for events in our lives, for things that are important to us, for things that simply may interest us. For Steelers fans, dates can serve as a way to remember the significant events in franchise history. Such as Jan. 27, 1969, which is the date the Steelers hired Chuck Noll. Or Feb. 1, 2009, which is the date of their comeback victory over the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII, which brought them their sixth Lombardi Trophy in franchise history.
While Sept. 17, 2019 doesn't reach the same category of significance as the aforementioned, it was important in that it might have saved the season for that particular group, and even if it fell short of that, it certainly deserves to be remembered as the day the Steelers defense became complete. That's because Sept. 17, 2019 was the date the Steelers acquired safety Minkah Fitzpatrick in a trade with the Miami Dolphins.
That trade completed the Steelers defense, because even though the team had been ranking at or near the top of the NFL in sacks the previous couple of seasons, the unit wasn't what it needed to be because it was grossly deficient in the area of creating takeaways. The addition of Fitzpatrick, who immediately was installed at free safety and spent the rest of the season patrolling the middle of the field, went a long way toward remedying that problem. One year after the Steelers tied a franchise low with just eight interceptions and finished tied-for-29th with 15 takeaways, the 2019 defense was second in the NFL with 20 interceptions and led the NFL with 38 total takeaways.
In his first seven games with the Steelers, Fitzpatrick had five interceptions, one of which he returned for a 96-yard touchdown, forced one fumble, and recovered one fumble. At that point, opponents did their best to avoid him and any area of the field he was assigned, but Fitzpatrick's presence had an impact on the rest of the unit anyway. Just one example of that was cornerback Joe Haden finishing the season with five interceptions, his best total in the NFL since his rookie season of 2010 in Cleveland when he had six.
In his 14 games with the Steelers, Fitzpatrick complemented his five interceptions with 68 tackles, nine passes defensed, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and he also scored two defensive touchdowns. Terrell Edmunds, the team's No. 1 pick in 2018, finished second on the team with 105 tackles, but with only three passes defensed and no interceptions he has yet to develop the kind of ball skills to complement Fitzpatrick and Haden. Before anyone might view Edmunds' second season as a bit of a disappointment because of the lack of splash plays, he likely was asked to sacrifice somewhat to ease Fitzpatrick's adjustment to the Steelers defensive scheme after the in-season trade. As it was, Fitzpatrick and Edmunds played virtually every snap on defense the rest of the season.
The addition of Fitzpatrick, plus 54 more sacks over the course of 2019 had the Steelers defense finish ranked in the top five in eight defensive categories, including sacks, interceptions, yards allowed, and points allowed.
ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT
The 20 interceptions the Steelers recorded in 2019 were the most since the 2010 season when the team recorded 21 and advanced to Super Bowl XLV.
LOOKING AHEAD TO 2020
As is the case with a number of other areas on their team, the Steelers have quality players at the top of the depth chart here, but there doesn't seem to be much for them to depend upon when it comes to depth. Former second-round pick Sean Davis was injured and spent much of the 2019 season on injured reserve, and after he watched Fitzpatrick take his spot in the lineup and finish as a first-team All-Pro, it would be shocking if he didn't take advantage of unrestricted free agency and look for a team where he could have a chance to start.
Jordan Dangerfield has value as a core special teams player, but he had only one tackle on defense last season, and he is 29 years old. Marcus Allen, a fifth-round pick in 2018, spent his second season on the practice squad before being activated on Dec. 20. John Battle and Tray Williams were signed to futures contracts after the season.
The Steelers play a lot of sub-packages on defense, and most of those alignments are made up of multiple defensive backs, and so having only two safeties who have shown themselves capable of handling regular season snaps on defense is a risk. Maybe the team chooses to address this area during the offseason, but it would seem they would have to be looking for bargains in free agency, and adding rookies during the draft might not really help them much in 2020.
They might have to get creative as a result, and that could include finding a way to utilize some of their cornerbacks in some packages as safeties, with one possibility for such a role being Cam Sutton. But worrying about depth and finding players who can contribute in sub-packages is less concerning than looking for the kind of transformative ball-hawking free safety the team added on Sept. 17, 2019.
NEXT: After a hiatus for the NFL Scouting Combine, Steelers-By-Position will return on March 4, when we take a look at Inside Linebackers.