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Steelers expect others to step up with Fitzpatrick sidelined

Adjusting to life without All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick on the field won't be easy for the Steelers.

Doing so with only a few days to prepare to play without Fitzpatrick before their next game makes it even more difficult.

With the Tennessee Titans (3-4) coming to Acrisure Stadium Thursday night, the Steelers (4-3) don't have a lot of time to lick their wounds coming off a 20-10 loss last Sunday to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

And the biggest of those wounds is the loss of Fitzpatrick for this game. The Steelers' star safety left the loss to the Jaguars on the opening play of Jacksonville's second possession with a hamstring injury and did not return.

He has already been declared out for the Steelers' game Thursday night against the Titans.

"We have multiple guys who are going to have to step up," Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said Tuesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. "Guys are going to have to do some different things, and it's our job on the short week to try to get them in the right position so they can play to their strengths. But it's hard. You're not going to replicate that guy.

"That guy's really, really good and he does a lot. So, we'll do it by committee, and have that committee hopefully in the right spot so they can let you perform well."

The committee approach will have Damontae Kazee replacing Fitzpatrick at free safety next to strong safety Keanu Neal.

The two are both veterans and have played a lot this season – Kazee has played 381 defensive snaps this season, Neal 308 – as their presence has allowed Fitzpatrick to do a little bit of everything for the Steelers this season defensively.

In addition to his regular duties at free safety, Fitzpatrick has often been locked up on the opposing team's biggest receiving threat, giving both Kazee and Neal opportunities to play more safety-specific roles.

But without Fitzpatrick on the field, Kazee and Neal will likely see their snap counts – and responsibilities – increase. Neal had seven tackles against Jacksonville, while Kazee had five and an interception.

"It may put a little more on their plate in terms of where they have to be and how they have to get there," Austin said. "But I think it's it's it's doable, and we'll make that determination because we'll be working this right up until game time in terms of the things that the guys are going to do and what they feel comfortable with."

The Steelers have often used a three-safety defensive package this season, particularly against teams that employ heavier packages. The Titans are a run-first team with All-Pro running back Derrick Henry.

With rookie Will Levis making his first career start last Sunday in a 28-23 win over the Atlanta Falcons, the Titans ran the ball 36 times and had Levis attempt 29 passes.

So, the Steelers are going to have to stop the run first, then figure out ways to pressure and confuse the young quarterback.

"I think whenever you're dealing with a young quarterback, you have to try to make them uncomfortable," Austin said. "However that is, whether it's disguise, whether it's pressure, whether it's different things that you know you do in terms of as (head coach) Mike (Tomlin) likes to call them schematics, but you have to do something so they don't feel comfortable."

That might be a little more difficult without Fitzpatrick, one the best ballhawks in the NFL, not on the field.

But Kazee and Neal have a lot of experience together. They played together in previous stops in Atlanta and Dallas before joining the Steelers – Kazee in 2022 and Neal this season.

And because Fitzpatrick was injured early in the game, they also got a lot of snaps together last week in the loss to the Jaguars.

"When it happens during the game, I don't think it's ever how you want it," Austin said. "So I think having a few days to prep, it will be a different look for those guys.

"We're just expecting to be better this week, just like we do every week. When we line up, we expect to play better each week, and that's our goal. If we don't, we go back to the drawing board and try and do it again the next week."