Minkah Fitzpatrick’s Mission

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What he loves most are those precious 10-plus minutes of real time between series when he can meticulously dissect every play that just transpired on the field.

When he turns intel into ammo.

When he can then read your quarterback’s mind and make the play that hijacks the game.

We all see the extraordinary speed. The hands. The all-world athleticism. But Minkah Fitzpatrick knows it’s his brain, the way he and he alone sees the game and outthinks offenses, that can make him a legend.

Picture the greatest safeties at their greatest moments. Troy Polamalu helicoptering over the offensive line the millisecond the ball is snapped. Ed Reed purposely playing the wrong coverage to fool the unfoolable. Brian Dawkins playing all over the secondary, a chess piece that can move in any direction and obliterate everything in its path. Instincts fuel the legends, and instincts have always fueled Fitzpatrick’s game. He pays attention to everything. Where a receiver’s toes are pointed. Where a QB thinks your scheme is weak.

He’s an obsessed detective taking notes on paper all week and in his mind throughout every minute on the field.

“There’s definitely a game within the game,” Fitzpatrick says. “This isn’t just people running around hitting each other. There’s a gap between the good and the great and a gap between the great and the elite. I think the elite guys are athletic [and] also know how to play the game within the game.

“Guys that really separate themselves know how to play that game within the game.”

This is his wiring.

So imagine how pissed he was a year ago. Imagine his fury when he was asked to essentially abandon his instincts and move to a strong safety role that, in the Dolphins’ scheme, was really more of a quasi-linebacker, mashing into a pile of 300-pound linemen.

It was maddening, like playing with a straitjacket on. Fitzpatrick could not be himself, and his head coach would not budge. So rather than punch in, lose by 30, punch out and go to sleep every night feeling frustrated beyond belief, he took control. He spoke up. He’s now in Pittsburgh gunning for greatness.

You rarely ever see this in the NFL. The NBA? Sure. Star basketball players today are mercenaries migrating from team to team year to year. In the NFL, players possess limited contractual power to do so, trade demands ring hollow and the culture is just…different. Far more militaristic, far more Do Your Job.

This son of a diesel mechanic has no problem respecting authority, but he couldn’t ignore the sinking feeling inside him.

Now at peace, he doesn’t hold back.

Fitzpatrick loathes DBs who spam social media every summer, all in the name of the brand, but he can’t help it. As the words spill out, he grasps their impact.

“I don’t like just saying stuff. Saying, ‘Oh, I can be one of the best!'” Fitzpatrick begins. “I think I prepare and I train and work like I want to be one of the best of the best. One of the best to play the game. I want to be compared to the Ed Reeds and the Polamalus and the Brian Dawkinses of the game. That’s the standard that I work to and the standard I try to hold myself to.

“Now that I’m verbally saying it, I’m going to have to work up to it even more.”

Because in his own division, Fitzpatrick faces the future of the sport. Joe Burrow is 23 and fresh off the greatest season ever by a college quarterback. Baker Mayfield is 25 and one year removed from a rookie-record 27 touchdown passes. Lamar Jackson is 23, an MVP redefining the position. And here’s Fitzpatrick, the Steelers’ 23-year-old trump card who can decode and demoralize all three and, by doing so, not only become the face of a flagship NFL franchise but go down in league history.

Just ask one of those safeties he’s chasing. Dawkins, who has stayed in the game as an analyst and player development coach since retiring in 2012, says Fitzpatrick has the “talent” and “tools” and “knowledge” to be truly great. And just ask one of the greatest coaches ever, a man who’s not exactly known for gushing over anyone. No coach knows Fitzpatrick better than Nick Saban, and Nick Saban believes.

“He can be as good a player as anybody who’s ever played the position,” Saban says.

Fitzpatrick put himself into this position to be special.

It isn’t by accident. He does not intend to waste it.

Career on the brink

Initially, he was thrilled. He knew Brian Flores had just played a major role in holding an electric offense to three points in the Super Bowl. Playing for a defensive mastermind who had learned from the ultimate mastermind up in New England sounded perfect.

So when Fitzpatrick, a 2018 first-round pick out of Alabama, was told in April 2019, two months after Flores was hired, what his new role would be, he suppressed all concerns.

He wanted this to work. He bought in. For four months.

“Even though they have me in the wrong spot and other players know they have me in the wrong spot,” Fitzpatrick says. “Even though I disagree with the coaches. I’m still going to follow their lead.”

Flores had Fitzpatrick playing the Patrick Chung role in his scheme, which Fitzpatrick believed completely misused his gifts. Oh, he was perfectly fine with moving around. As a rookie, Fitzpatrick had shifted from outside corner to nickel to free safety to strong safety to even 20-some snaps at linebacker. But now? Now, Flores wanted him to play all strong safety and all linebacker, where he could not use his athleticism or his mind.

He felt as though Flores had no clue who he was as a player and didn’t care to find out.

Fitzpatrick wasn’t working on his hips and breaks in 1-on-1 drills against receivers in practice anymore. No, he was now “taking on pulling guards and tackles.”

“It was messing up my skill set,” Fitzpatrick says. “I was working the hand-fighting drills against the tight ends and working on hitting the bags and stuff like that. That’s fine and dandy, but that wasn’t my skill set.”

He needed to play away from that muck, play where he’s more general than infantry. Back deep, at free safety, he can lurk and plot and attack, fuse his mind and his 4.4 speed into a dangerous combination.

Finally, in August, Fitzpatrick confronted Flores about it. Nothing too serious yet. He just asked if he could get some coverage reps in, to show the new staff what he was capable of. Maybe seeing his athleticism in person would change their minds.

Right? Wrong. The trial lasted all of one practice, Fitzpatrick says, and he was given “barely” any coverage work at all.

That’s when Fitzpatrick decided he’d had enough and, he admits, went rogue. He wanted coaches to see it, even though they were refusing to. So he up and left those hand-to-hand combat drills and jogged across the field to 1-on-1s.

“They were frustrated at me for doing that, but I was like, ‘I’m not trying to sit here and punch a bag all day,'” Fitzpatrick says.

Everything came to a head Week 1 when, after a flurry of 11th-hour transactions, the Dolphins actually did throw Fitzpatrick back at deep center, even though he hadn’t practiced there at all. Even worse, Fitzpatrick was communicating with players he literally did not know. Players signed days prior were playing Sunday.

It didn’t go well.

“It was my first time ever seeing them,” Fitzpatrick says. “I didn’t even know half their names while I’m out there on the field with them. In the middle of the game! I’m trying to communicate with somebody, and he’s looking at me like I have no clue what I’m talking about.

“We went out and got embarrassed.”

To the tune of allowing 643 yards and 31 first downs in a 59-10 loss to the Ravens.

Fitzpatrick went to Flores again afterward, and this chat was more intense. He asked for a trade.

Flores tried to convince Fitzpatrick that he needed him to be a cornerstone for this organization, but to Fitzpatrick, there was no way he could be that franchise player if he was so pigeonholed, so uncomfortable, so misunderstood.

“We had a difference of opinion in my skill set and what he thought I could do and what I thought I could do,” Fitzpatrick says. “It was going to get tough for me to show something to somebody they were choosing not to see. They didn’t give me the opportunity to show it, even though I had film that showed it. The losing and all that stuff? If I was put in the right position and we’re losing-because of decisions people made upstairs-it is what it is. I can only control how I play. That didn’t affect me at all.

“It was just a fact that I was being used the wrong way. And we had a difference of opinion between myself and the head coach.”

(The Dolphins declined to make Flores available for this story.)

On September 26, off Fitzpatrick went to Pittsburgh. The Dolphins traded him along with a 2020 fourth-round pick and a 2021 seventh-round pick for 2020 first- and fifth-round picks and a 2021 sixth-round pick.

The Steelers looked bad. Mortgaging the future for the present after losing (aging) future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the season to an elbow injury seemed unconscionable to many.

Fitzpatrick looked bad. Bailing right at the onset of a massive rebuild made him seem like a sore loser. The ensuing backlash from Dolphins fans did get to him for a moment-but only a moment. He knew accepting the role would have “changed the entire trajectory” of his career, for the worse.

Plus, nobody understood why he had been bold enough to speak up.

Nobody had a clue why he lives with such conviction.

Life on the brink

When the water rushed in, they ran like hell.

Looking back, Fitzpatrick knows how lucky he and his sister are to be alive.

He stood at the top of the basement steps, on his way down to help his sister pack away pictures and medals and trophies into plastic bins. Hurricane Irene was blasting New Jersey, and there was already a foot or two of water at ground level outside their home in Old Bridge Township, so the family was trying to store everything they could. Then-“out of nowhere,” Fitzpatrick recalls-there was a big flash. “A spark” of a flash. The lights went out. Everything turned black. All the brother and sister heard was the booming bass of water rushing in, and both sprinted to safety.

The entire basement filled with water in about 20 seconds.

The foundation collapsed, and the Fitzpatricks, just like that, lost their home.

Fitzpatrick was a high school freshman at the time.

“It was close,” he says. “As soon as she saw that spark, she dipped. She got out of there just in time.”

They had salvaged some of the furniture but lost so much else. TVs, pictures, memories, and the absolute low point was when the house was condemned. Fitzpatrick can still picture the neon notice on the front of the house and the corresponding pale sadness on his parents’ faces. He, his four siblings, two parents and little nephew would all need to find somewhere else to live.

So many people told the family they should just tear down their house and rebuild, but money was already hard to come by with Mom and Dad both working multiple jobs. They didn’t have flood insurance, nor the funds to start over. Thankfully, one family friend offered to fix their foundation at half the price. Everything else, the Fitzpatricks fixed themselves.

In the meantime, they all moved into a grandmother’s tiny basement.

They never thought twice about it, either, because this is the family reflex.

To fight back, to earn the next day.

That reflex is all Fitzpatrick has ever known. From age 13 to college, he was his dad’s right-hand man. Freezing cold. Scorching heat. It didn’t matter. Minkah Sr. had him working on the 18-wheelers and massive concrete-mixing trucks through it all. Dad wanted Son to learn the meaning of hard work and remind him that if school and football didn’t work out, this is right where he’d be. “And, uh,” Fitzpatrick says today, “I didn’t want to do that.” The toughest job? Fixing transmissions on the big rigs.

A trans-jack helped, but Fitzpatrick still needed to hold the transmission up so it wouldn’t tip as he put in “at least” 20 screws. These transmissions felt roughly “400 pounds,” too.

“That thing was so heavy! We’d have to do it all the time,” he says. “I could’ve easily lined the stuff up and put the screws in, but he had me hold the transmission up on purpose. … We’d sit there for like an hour, pick it up and put it down. Hold it. Pull it out. Put it back in. It was so frustrating.”

Once while holding up the transmission, in the frigid cold, a tear froze on Fitzpatrick’s cheek.

He was never allowed to quit.

And Dad’s guidance didn’t stop there. Minkah Sr. is an athletic trainer, too. He helped mold Fitzpatrick into a 5-star recruit that just about every Division I coach in the country wanted. Including Saban. By the time Fitzpatrick headed to Tuscaloosa, he was hardened for tough coaching. For anything.

To this day, Fitzpatrick knows he and his sister could’ve been trapped in that collapsing foundation like a scene out of Titanic. Witnessing the thin line between life and death-seeing how unapologetically everything can just turn off-instilled that fortitude, that conviction.

He was tested early and passed.

That perspective became part of him.

“It just showed me the importance of things in life and showed me the unimportance of things,” he says. “If you work through it-keep your head down and keep pushing-you’ll be all right. A lot of times when you’re going through something, you’re also being prepared for something. Honestly, if I didn’t go through that time period of the struggle, pain and hurt and everything else, I don’t think I would’ve had the career I had at Alabama.

“There’s no way I would’ve gotten through Alabama or even the beginning of last season. I would’ve probably folded or broke and become a whole different person.”

Instead, every time he was challenged, he was ready. He inched closer to greatness.

‘Saban’s Son’

He hated the nickname, but there wasn’t anything Fitzpatrick could do about it. Nobody gets to pick their own nickname. When teammates started calling him “Saban’s Son” at Alabama, it stuck. It fit.

For Saban, the goal is to be a dad-like figure to all of his players. But most aren’t ready for all that entails.

“Tough love sometimes isn’t accepted very well by some people,” Saban says. “I know I didn’t accept it out of my dad when I was growing up.”

Some players do not want to be challenged, he continues, and some players do want to be challenged. The ones that do? They get used to him much, much quicker. “Deep down,” Saban says, that’s “what they want.” They want to be pushed to limits they didn’t know existed.

That was Fitzpatrick.

He was innately drawn to his coach. He knew the harder the road, the richer the payoff.

Stories of Saban breaking players down to build them back up are the stuff of legend, but that wasn’t needed here. Fitzpatrick already had the motivation, genuinely desiring to become the best version of himself-as much, Saban says, as any player he’s ever had. All the intangibles Saban usually needs to instill through grueling practices, speeches and blunt come-to-Jesus meetings were already part of Fitzpatrick. He was already hardened. His flame eternally lit.

“All the things you would encourage him to do,” Saban says, “he was really already doing.”

So they got down to business. Saban took Fitzpatrick’s football mind to a new level.

Every day, Fitzpatrick sat right above Saban in the Crimson Tide’s meeting room, where he could see just how complex Saban’s notes were, how Saban logged all minutia right down to which foot a player had up and back. (“That’s where I said, ‘All right, I’ve got to take it even further,'” Fitzpatrick says. “To the next level.”) And midway through his sophomore year-switching from “Star” nickel corner to safety when Eddie Jackson broke his leg-“son” truly made “dad” proud.

In the week leading up to his first game at safety, Fitzpatrick watched film with Saban for two hours every day, one-on-one in the big meeting room. It was rare access to the mind of a football genius, and the gap between good and great crystallized. As Saban explains, he taught Fitzpatrick the toughest position in his defense in a “progressive way,” showing him one coverage at a time with all responsibilities and all adjustments for that specific coverage.

“That really showed me how much he prepared and why he’s had the success he has,” Fitzpatrick says. “I was like, ‘You know, I want to have the same type of success, so I’m going to do the same thing.’ … That’s what really stood out to me: how much passion he had for the preparation.”

By Saturday, Fitzpatrick was ready to communicate everything.

He picked off a pass and helped completely shut down LSU in a 10-0 win.

“Most players couldn’t do that,” Saban says of the quick position change. “Most players wouldn’t even want to do it. They would be afraid that they couldn’t do it, or they would be afraid that it wouldn’t add to their value. And Minkah was like, ‘Hey, man, I’ll do whatever you want me to do to help the team.’ Then he proceeded to do everything he could to be able to do it well.”

Saban doesn’t stop there, either. He calls Fitzpatrick the only player he’s ever had who could play every single position in his secondary, making the Dolphins’ failure to find one for him all the more absurd. His personality was infectious-he was hungry to learn 24/7.

His game trended toward transcendent.

“It’s a rare combination when you have a guy who’s a really, really good athlete, which he is,” Saban says. “He’s really, really instinctive which, to me, is different than being intelligent. And then, he’s really, really intelligent. So it’s a unique circumstance that you have a guy who has all of these ingredients-and at a high level.”

To Saban, Fitzpatrick was equipped to become the NFL’s next great defensive weapon. He was the type of player who should be cut loose and built around, not stifled and forced into an ill-fitting role.

The legends-Reed, Polamalu, Dawkins-blazed that trail. In Philly, Dawkins was known as “Weapon X.” Because while it’s the bone-rattling hits that’ll forever replay on his highlight reel, Dawkins did so much more. His first-ever pick-six came while covering a receiver in the slot. That was his first job. Then, he moved all over. He roamed deep to fool your QB. He crept up to the line of scrimmage to blitz your QB. He blanketed receivers. He smashed tight ends. He’s now arguably the most beloved Eagle ever.

In Fitzpatrick, Dawkins sees another “chess piece.”

Another Weapon X.

“I always called myself a ‘freelance safety.’ I always called myself that,” Dawkins says. “That’s why I love guys who have that ability to be a chess piece. Checkers, you can only move from one slot to the next. Certain chess pieces can move across the board. You can use them in so many different ways. So when you think about Mink? Chess piece. All day long, he’s a chess piece-if you have a coordinator who understands that.

“Some guys are caught up in the caveman and dinosaur days. You’re a strong safety. You’re a free safety. If you do that, you’ll never see the best that that player’s able to do.”

Such stubbornness, Dawkins says, is what stonewalls good players from becoming truly great. Like Eric Berry. Dawkins believes Berry shouldn’t have been used in man-to-man coverage nearly as much as he was in Kansas City because that dulled his skill set. Didn’t allow him to use his eyes. Sure enough, this was one of Saban’s fears with Fitzpatrick. As special as Fitzpatrick was at locking down receivers, Saban knew he also needed to let Fitzpatrick see the QB.

No wonder Fitzpatrick took charge in Miami. All of these talents were being buried. Saban declines to comment on this, but Dawkins loves how Fitzpatrick challenged Flores and believes Saban is a huge reason he had the courage to do so.

He’s heard Alabama’s coaches are extremely blunt with their players and encourage players to be extremely blunt right back.

This needed to be done.

“He’s a young man who knows his worth,” Dawkins says. “He knows he can do more than [what Flores was asking]. You have to do that in certain situations-take on bigger guys. But if that’s all you’re using a guy that can do so many other things for, then you’re misusing his gifts. You’re not allowing his other gifts to shine.

“You saw what happened when he got to Pittsburgh.”

Steelers on his back

Play to play, he takes you inside his mind.

Fitzpatrick can play that game within the game now.

The 24-17 win over the L.A. Chargers last October? Late in the game, after the Chargers had narrowed a 24-point lead to seven, Fitzpatrick knew what Philip Rivers knew-that he had exposed Pittsburgh on a “dagger” passing concept earlier and would try it again. The play burst so glaringly open the first time. On the sideline, the Steelers adjusted their call. They knew what was coming-a seam from the No. 2 receiver, a deep in by the No. 1-and this time, Fitzpatrick pretended to carry that No. 2 up the seam because that’s what he did the first time.

Then he broke on the dig route. All that prevented a pick was a hard hit from wideout Keenan Allen.

Fitzpatrick was inside a QB’s mind again three weeks later in a 26-24 win over the Colts.

At Pittsburgh’s 20-yard line, Indy lined up with loads of speed to one side, and Fitzpatrick got suspicious. The Colts were trying to fool him into thinking tight end Jack Doyle, in a three-point stance to his left, wasn’t really a threat. Quarterback Brian Hoyer no doubt expected Fitzpatrick, the single-high safety, to cheat toward the speed, with Doyle and Zach Pascal running right at one cornerback (Joe Haden).

And then Hoyer would knife the ball into a window because, Fitzpatrick says, it’s not like Haden can cover two players at once.

“So instead of leaning all the way toward the speed, I just split in the middle,” he says. “And I just kept my eyes on the quarterback, read his shoulders, and once he opened that way and threw the ball, I just went and reacted. A lot of guys won’t pay attention to that detail.”

At, say, midfield, no way are you concerned about a tight end both going deep. But in the red zone? Sure.

“So I’m not going to just leave my man, Joe, out there astray,” Fitzpatrick says. “And what helps me out is I know we have two real good cover guys out on the right. … I saw that the threat was really to the left side.”

Ninety-six yards later, peace.

That one kept Pittsburgh’s season alive.

As miserable as Fitzpatrick was in Miami, he’s just as ecstatic now in Pittsburgh. With little help from their offense in 2019, the Steelers miraculously kept their playoff hopes alive all the way into Week 17 thanks to a defense that finished No. 5 in yards allowed (304.1), No. 1 in takeaways (38), No. 1 in sacks (54) and No. 4 in opposing passer rating (79.7). This group of what head coach Mike Tomlin has called “great white sharks” did not fold, recovering from an 0-2 start to win eight of Fitzpatrick’s first 11 games before finally succumbing to injuries and dropping their final three.

Fitzpatrick doesn’t expect them to fold in the 2020 season, either. He sees a secondary that forces QBs to pat the ball and a pass rush that then makes them pay.

And once again, he has a head coach who gets him.

Tomlin, like Saban, has a background as a DBs coach. Tomlin, like Saban, is obsessed with the details of his position. Fitzpatrick raves about him with the same enthusiasm. How every Friday, Tomlin leads a final run-through with 15 to 20 defensive players, sifting through two notebooks packed with secrets. Tomlin calls the session “Winning Edge.” With a laser pointer, he points at specific numbers covering whiteboards on both sides of the room. Numbers he wants planted in their heads.

On 3rd-and-4 to -6, here’s what they’ll run. On 3rd-and-9 to -12, expect this. To Fitzpatrick, this is all gold. It feels like he’s back in that one-on-one setting with Saban.

Coaches in Pittsburgh didn’t put too much on his plate when he arrived from Miami. They gave him snaps at both free and strong safety to see where he was comfortable, and, of course, free it was.

He detonated so many games that quarterbacks stopped throwing his direction. Completely. Fitzpatrick was targeted twice- twice!-over the final eight weeks of the season, per one film review he retweeted. He was named an All-Pro, finishing the season with 65 tackles, five picks and two touchdowns in all.

The plan in 2020? Give those QBs no choice but to throw his way.

To retake the AFC North, sure, more offense helps. This Steelers defense won’t need to go full SCLSU Mud Dogs again with Ben Roethlisberger back. (“I’m excited about that!” Fitzpatrick says.) But throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s been talking with coaches about ways to ramp up the creativity. He is the mind that must ultimately mystify Lamar and Baker and Burrow.

This season, Fitzpatrick fully expects to move around. Just don’t expect him to take on 300-pounders.

Wherever he roams, he’ll bait quarterbacks. On his terms.

The challenge

Just how close is Fitzpatrick- right now -to that Reed-Polamalu-Dawkins stratosphere? Very.

Nobody’s shy here. Fitzpatrick included.

He isn’t sprinting the wrong direction on purpose like Reed yet. But he believes he’ll get there, because he knows he can toy with QBs on this spectrum.

Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler is asked all the time if Fitzpatrick is the next Polamalu. “He’s not there…yet,” he always answers. The next step is fooling QBs closer to the line of scrimmage. In 2020, this experimentation will grow. “He has a lot of God-given talent,” Butler says.

As for Dawkins, take it from Dawkins. He saw himself in Fitzpatrick instantly. They met at the Pro Bowl last year in Orlando and watched film together for a television segment. What stood out to him right away was how laid-back Fitzpatrick was. His chill demeanor reminded Dawkins of his younger self. “That was me,” Dawkins says. “Absolutely.” Then, play to play, dissecting each other’s highlights, it hit Dawkins: Fitzpatrick was actually far, far ahead of where he was at 23 years old.

At this point, Dawkins was still relying on sheer athleticism.

“Coming into the league, I didn’t know the game like he knows the game,” Dawkins says. “You can see, with Mink, you can see he already has a really good understanding of how to study film. Why he did some of the things. Why he anticipated specific things on film. The minute you can stop thinking is when your athleticism and the things you can naturally do begin to pour out of you more and more.

“His athleticism, yes. But his thinking or not thinking-his ability to not have to think…he can see things and anticipate things to be ahead of the game.”

And Fitzpatrick needed to keep this momentum going. He refused to let a pandemic render this offseason a waste, so, from his family’s new second home in Boca Raton, Florida, he has trained with Dad like old times. He’s studied those three QBs, too.

There’s no sugarcoating it. All three could be a problem for Pittsburgh for years.

This division has never been this rich and this young at the most important position in sports. But Fitzpatrick believes he can be the weapon who wrecks everyone’s hopes and dreams.

He’s built for it.

He’s put himself in this position.

“It’s definitely a challenge, but I’m always up for it,” Fitzpatrick says. “We’re going to have to add to the resume, add to the list, add to disguises and techniques, because as much as I study them, they’re studying me, too.”

So, chess it is.

Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: .