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Why the Steelers traded after Minkah Fitzpatrick

Photo : Kevin C. Cox ( Getty )

At first glance, the Steelers The decision this week that trade for the Dolphins defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick was a bit of a head-scratcher. Here was a 0-2 team whose franchise quarterback is now out for the season, which provides an excellent long-term asset – a first choice in the first half of 2020 – in exchange for an immediate upgrade in a position needed. That's the kind of thing a contender does to catapult himself into a championship, and the Steelers … don't seem to be a contender, with or without Fitzpatrick. Should this season go sideways, Pittsburgh could look for a quarterback next spring, but now without the possible top-15 or even top-10 selection to do so. Which can be a problem. But there is a certain team-building logic to what the Steelers did.

The addition of Fitzpatrick represents an attempt to upset the Steelers pass defense, a sore spot for much of this decade, and a unit that has been badly exposed in this season's first two games. Between 2004 and 2011, the Steelers won a pair of Super Bowls and reached another. They also thrived defensively and finished in the top six in pass defense DVOA in six of the eight seasons, per football fan. Since then, when rapid strikes, horizontal violations began to spread, these crimes proved to be the perfect antidote to Dick LeBeau's aggressive, zone-flash system. And as the veteran core of the Steelers championship defense ages, they were largely replaced by smaller players. Between 2012 and 2018, the Steelers pass defense ended no better than 12th in pass defense DVOA; this year, Keith Butler's fifth as coordinator, sits on the 30th. The Steelers reached the AFC title in 2016 and looked like a legitimate Super Bowl threat in 2017, at least until the inside of linebacker Ryan Shazier's back injury created a gaping hole in the middle of the defense, exactly where they are usually the most vulnerable. Fitzpatrick is the latest piece in a puzzle that they have spent years trying to solve.

The Steelers have long used the proposal to build their list, with an eye on retaining their home-grown talent. Pittsburgh rarely trades away capital, and it usually drops its toes at the shallow end of the free-agent pool, preferring low-cost add-ons for big money players. This year, they added cornerback Steven Nelson to the free agency as a replacement for Artie Burns, a 2016-round bust. They also brought in ex-Rams linebacker / safety ground Barron. The night before the draft in late April, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger agreed to a two-year extension until 2021. Then, on draft night, the Steelers traded up 10 spots to select Devin Bush – an inside linebacker with a hybrid skillset similar to the Shaziers. Antonio Brown was traded and Le'Veon Bell was allowed to go, but the Steelers had confidence in their ability to replace their significant output, especially after they got last year from JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner. Here was a franchise that missed the playoffs by a half that used the finishing touches.

But even the endings were not too expensive. Nelson, who nobody will ever make a mistake for Rod Woodson, will earn $ 9 million this year, but $ 7.5 million of that comes from the signing bonus – the only full guarantee in his deal, giving the Steelers a free out if he has not been up to the task this season. Barron's agreement expires in two years, $ 12 million, with only $ 3.875 million sitting on the books for this year, and a $ 2,875 death charge for next year if they were to dump him. Similarly, the Steelers did not borrow their future to acquire Bush; they exchanged first-rounders with the Broncos and threw 2019's second-rounders plus a third-rounder in 2020. All reasonable, cost-effective moves. And in this view, the acquisition of Fitzpatrick was also.

Fitzpatrick took a total of 10 of the Dolphins in 2018, and he did not want any part of the brave tank job that threatened to devour his early career there. He also only has two games in the second season of his rookie contract, meaning the Steelers get three years of cost control, plus the opportunity for a fourth, including his fifth-year option for 2022. The Dolphins already paid Fitzpatrick's $ 10 million signature bonus, and they're on the hook for it against their cap. Over the next three seasons, Fitzpatrick will count just $ 955,764, $ 1.975 million and $ 2.722 million against the Steelers cap. The Steelers essentially swapped a first pick for the first round in 2020 for a first pick in 2018 in the first place, raised a genuine weakness and saved $ 10 million. It is a solid, basic feature – and a necessary one.

The Steelers, with Shazier, led the league in DVOA toward tight ends 2017, according to Football Outsiders. Last year, they tumbled all the way to the 31st. So far this season, they have been awful to defend in the middle of the field: According to Pro Football Focus, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson were a combined 26-for-31 for 417 yards, four TDs. you and zero shots as they targeted the middle of the field beyond the boundary of this season's first two games. The Steelers schedule, which is heavy on a variety of sub-packages – 2018, distributed the Steelers six or more defensive backs more often than any other staffing group, per football outsider – is also usually prone to breakdowns in communications . I mean, come on:

The big risk here lies in what could ultimately become of this season, and by Mason Rudolph, Roethlisberger's replacement. If he trains, the Steelers may have their QB for the future. If he does not, they will no longer have a first rounder to use on any replacement, and they will just be another team with a decent foundation that lacks the most valuable item. And what about Roethlisberger? He turns 38 in March and he will go off with an operation without contact injury on his throwing elbow, which does not seem to bend well. "He intends to recover from this injury," head coach Mike Tomlin told reporters . "And all that we have heard, we are comfortable that it is a strong opportunity." But that was before the surgery, and there is no way to know how strong that opportunity really is.

The Steelers are still built to fire their shots, and the addition of Fitzpatrick is part of the calibration. But Fitzpatrick can also take care of what's to come if that shot turns out to be a dud.

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