Here is the next in a position-by-position series on the Steelers at the conclusion of the 2022 season as they head into the start of the NFL free agent period, which opens March 15.
Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds, Damontae Kazee, Miles Killebrew, Tre Norwood, Elijah Riley
(free agent scorecard: 2 unrestricted, Terrell Edmunds, Damontae Kazee)
A LAST LOOK AT 2022
The Steelers re-signed Terrell Edmunds in the offseason to a one-year deal, then added Damontae Kazee in the hours after the 2022 draft, signaling a plan to improve their depth at the position and employ more multiple safety looks.
But Kazee suffered a fractured forearm in the preseason, keeping him out until the second half of the season, putting some of the three safety looks the Steelers had hoped to use and allow Minkah Fitzpatrick to do different things, on hold.
As it was, Fitzpatrick had another All-Pro season, tying for the league lead with six interceptions. He also finished with 96 tackles, second on the team, despite missing two games with a concussion and knee issue, while finishing third on the team with 11 pass breakups.
For his efforts, he was named the team MVP at season's end.
Edmunds also was solid, recording 70 tackles, two sacks and five pass breakups in 15 games, though he failed to record an interception.
That was fine, though, as Kazee showed off his ball skills once he returned from the Reserve/Injured List for the final nine games of the season. Kazee had 20 tackles and two interceptions in the final nine games, starting four games in the three safety look that allowed Fitzpatrick to drop down and play the slot.
After his return, Kazee played at least 49 percent of the team's defensive snaps in five of his nine games.
The Steelers did use second-year safety Tre Norwood at free safety and in the slot at times early in the season, but once Kazee returned, Norwood played just 16 defensive snaps in the final nine games.
Veteran Miles Killebrew is a special teams standout and matched fullback Derek Watt for the team lead in special teams snaps played with 290. He appeared in all 17 games but played just 13 defensive snaps.
Veteran Elijah Riley was claimed off waivers from the Jets and spent most of the season on the practice squad, but was elevated for four games and finished the season on the active roster.
Overall, this group was a big part of the team's improved run defense while also contributing eight of the team's league-best 20 interceptions.
The ability of the safeties to do different things in both coverage and stopping the run was a big part of the team's defense in 2022.
- Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast
ONE STAT THAT STOOD OUT
Fitzpatrick became the first Steelers player since Mel Blount in 1975 to lead the NFL in interceptions. Blount had 11 interceptions in 1975. Fitzpatrick was one of four players to finish the season with six interceptions.
LOOK AHEAD TO 2023
With both Edmunds and Kazee having signed one-year deals last offseason, both showed their worth to the team.
But Fitzpatrick is the straw that stirs the drink on the back end of the defense. His ability to play the deep middle, drop down in the box or match up and play man-to-man while also being one of the game's best ball hawks are what make him special.
That said, Edmunds has shown over the past four seasons that he works well with Fitzpatrick, while Kazee was a welcome addition to the defense, as well.
Keeping that group together wouldn't be the worst idea.
If that isn't possible, adding young talent at the position might be the way to go. At 26, Fitzpatrick is in the prime of his career, and while safeties typically age gracefully, having a younger strong safety to pair with him could be the way to go in the long term.
But given the number of snaps the Steelers played with three safeties on the field together over the second half of the season, simply re-signing Edmunds or adding another starting strong safety probably isn't all the team will do. Depth is always going to be a concern. And the Steelers found success with the three-safety look.