Fitzpatrick: Modified schedule could benefit Steelers

In this Jan. 23, 2020, file photo, Pittsburgh Steelers NFL football player Minkah Fitzpatrick gestures during practice for the Pro Bowl in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Minkah Fitzpatrick is missing the somewhat leisurely pace of the NFL’s organized team activities, when free time in the evenings allows teammates to develop the chemistry the Steelers safety considers critical to success.

“You’re learning about each other and how each other think and life outside of football,” Fitzpatrick said Tuesday.

Not so much this season, at least not in the way Fitzpatrick is used to. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Fitzpatrick to work out on his own. It’s limited his interactions with other members of one of the league’s top secondaries to group chats and virtual conference calls. It’s not ideal, but these aren’t ideal times.

While Fitzpatrick is preparing as if the Steelers will report to St. Vincent College for the 55th straight summer for training camp in July, that’s more pragmatism than optimism. The way the third-year All-Pro figures it, if he’s ready for the grind of camp then he’ll be overly prepared if camp is scrapped or the preseason is altered in response to the coronavirus.

If the NFL does tinker with the schedule, Pittsburgh might be one of the least impacted clubs in the league. The Steelers return 10 of 11 starters to a unit that finished fifth last season — and was the primary reason Pittsburgh hung around the playoff picture until late December despite losing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a right elbow injury at halftime of Week 2.

“We have some young faces and new faces, (but) some teams, half their roster, half their secondary or half their linebackers are gone,” Fitzpatrick said. “(A shortened preseason) will definitely give us an advantage because we all have a year (together) under our belt or more than that. I think it’s more of an advantage.”

Fitzpatrick, acquired in an audacious trade with Miami last September just days after Roethlisberger was injured, could take on an expanded role in 2020. The Steelers purposefully kept it simple for him when Fitzpatrick arrived so he could get comfortable. It didn’t take long. He picked off a pass and forced a fumble in his first game in Pittsburgh and rarely let up, so much so that opposing offenses started avoiding him late in the season. He considers it a matter of respect, though he’s also willing to do more moving around this fall to give defensive coordinator Keith Butler another wrinkle at his disposal.

“If the coaches want me to move around, I’ll move around and if they don’t, then I don’t need to,” Fitzpatrick said. “I’m trying to learn the system and get it down to a T, and just in case I have to or they ask me to, I can move.”

Fitzpatrick has been keeping an eye on Roethlisberger’s recovery from elbow surgery. So have the Steelers, who spent free agency and the draft trying to provide more punch to an offense that faltered late in the season in Roethlisberger’s absence.

Pittsburgh signed tight end Eric Ebron and used its first draft pick on Notre Dame wide receiver Chase Claypool, leaving a defense that led the league in sacks largely untouched. The message couldn’t be more clear: The Steelers anticipate Roethlisberger returning to form and the team returning to the playoffs following a two-year absence. So does Fitzpatrick.

“I expect him to be Ben Roethlisberger,” Fitzpatrick said. “He’s a great leader and a great man … He has a lot of experience and wisdom to share. I think he’s going to keep being himself. He’s going to go out there and compete and challenge myself as a defensive player.”

It’s a challenge Fitzpatrick figures he and the rest of a defense that produced four Pro Bowlers will be ready to answer whenever the Steelers are given the go-ahead to get together.

“I think we’re one of the best,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think that was reflected in the way that we played. We were top three, top five in almost every single category. … I think our execution level alongside our talent level is kind of what sets us apart and will continue to set us apart.”