Steelers

For Fitzpatrick, Dolphins just another game ☕

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Steelers free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (39) -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

In the aftermath of the Dolphins' 59-10 loss in the regular season opener against the Ravens, a number of Miami players went to management and asked to be traded away from what they saw as a futile situation.

In an effort to secure the No. 1-overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, according to a report in the Miami Herald, Dolphins' owner Stephen Ross privately told people interviewing for his team's head coaching position this year, the idea was to lose -- a lot.

And then, in the days leading up to the start of the regular season, the team traded away starting left tackle Laremy Tunsil and starting wide receiver Kenny Stills for draft picks.

For players such as Minkah Fitpatrick, the writing was on the wall. There would be more 59-10 losses forthcoming. And he, and others, didn't want to be a part of it, especially given how the Dolphins were using him on the field.

A few days after the Dolphins gave Fitzpatrick, their first-round pick -- 11th overall -- in the 2018 draft, permission to seek a trade, the Steelers came calling. They had just lost starting free safety Sean Davis for the season to a shoulder injury.

The price was steep -- the Steelers' 2020 first-round draft pick, along with a 2020 fifth-round pick and a 2021 sixth-rounder -- but the Steelers pulled the trigger to acquire Fitzpatrick along with Miami's fourth-round pick in 2020 and a 2021 seventh-round selection.

Next Monday, the two teams meet at Heinz Field, with the Steelers at 2-4 and the Dolphins at 0-6. Some might think it could be awkward for Fitzpatrick seeing the guys he left behind. He doesn't feel it will be at all.

"No. Most of the guys, I talked to them as it was going on and even afterwards," Fitzpatrick told me Monday, as the Steelers returned to practice after their bye week. "There was no hard feelings or anything. They understood it was business. In my shoes, they probably would have done the same thing. They know I gave them my all and I did whatever they asked me to do. I ended it professionally and I don’t think there will be any hard feelings from the players."

He's right. If the remaining Dolphins' players had the value and ability to make something happen the way Fitzpatrick did, they would have forced their way out, as well. They all wanted out, too.

"No comment," Fitzpatrick said with a sheepish grin.

The Steelers have gone 2-2 since acquiring Fitzpatrick. He's started all four games at free safety and recorded 21 tackles, an interception and three pass breakups.

The Dolphins, meanwhile, have continued on their path of futility, one the Steelers hope to help them along. They've been outscored 211-63, meaning their average game score has been 35-10.

And the Steelers haven't minded giving up what they did to acquire his services.

"He's been really good," corner Joe Haden told me. "To be able to learn everything as quickly as he has, it shows he's a really bright guy."

He's made a big impact. In the two games before acquiring Fitzpatrick, the Steelers allowed an average of 445 yards and 31.5 points per game. In the four games since, they've given up 309 yards and 17.5 points per game.

Certainly, Fitzpatrick isn't the only reason for that, but he also hasn't hurt those performances.

The Steelers have asked him to play just at free safety thus far, though the free safety in the Steelers' defense also will go down in the box on occasion. That's a big change from what was being asked of him in Miami.

One of the big reasons he asked for a trade was because he was being asked to play a number of positions. According to the Herald report, Fitzpatrick was unhappy with the way new head coach Brian Flores' staff was moving him around.

In the opening loss to the Ravens, he played safety, nickel corner and even linebacker. Fitzpatrick had done a lot of moving around at Alabama, when he played all six spots in the Crimson Tide's defensive backfield. But linebacker? That was another matter.

That's why he has appreciated how the Steelers have put him at one position and left him there -- at least thus far.

"If you’re moving around at the beginning, it’s tough because you don’t really get a foundation," he told me. "Once things are more well known and I get a little more into the defense, I wouldn’t mind moving around a little more, having a different role. I’m not saying six different positions, but I’ll move around a little bit. All of the DBs here do different things. It’s not like I play free safety but I don’t play the tight ends."

All along, Fitzpatrick knew this day was coming, the one where he would look across the sideline and see his former teammates.

"When I first got traded here, I knew we were playing Pittsburgh," Fitzpatrick said. "I had seen the schedule. I knew I would see these guys in a few weeks."

But he's intent on keeping things professional. He doesn't want to turn this into something more than it is -- the next game on the schedule for a team trying to stay relevant in the AFC playoff chase.

He also, however, has never hand to handle something like this before. He went to St. Peter's Prep all four years in high school. Then, it was on to Alabama before being drafted by the Dolphins.

But he insists he won't put any additional pressure on himself to perform well in this game.

Perhaps it helps he was only with the Dolphins a little over a year and that the coaching staff was a new one after his rookie season.

"It’s just the way I am. It will be another game," he said. "Obviously, the relationships with the coaches and staff would have been different (had he been there longer). I think the way I am, it’s the business of the game. You can’t look at it any differently. I’ll prepare the way I normally prepare and do what I’m doing."

LOLLEY'S VIEW

Fitzpatrick has been a welcome addition for the Steelers and has made an impact. Some might still question the price the Steelers paid to get him, and it was steep. But he is still just 22 years old and costs the Steelers just $5.7 million in salary through 2021.

Then, they'll have an option year on him -- if that pay scale remains part of the new CBA.

 

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