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Steelers Safety Overview: Playmakers Galore

The Pittsburgh Steelers have loaded safety room this season.

Over the past several seasons, the safety position has been one of the most reliable units on the Pittsburgh Steelers roster and 2023 should be no different. 

Even with Terrell Edmunds departing via free agency, Pittsburgh appears to have all of their bases covered. With how effective they were in three safety sets last season, it'll be interesting to see the distribution of labor this year as well as how often they resort to deploying these specific personnel groupings. The safety group should continue to provide stability for one of the league's most talented defenses.

Starters: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Damontae Kazee

Now in his fifth season with the Steelers, Minkah Fitzpatrick has firmly established himself as one of the league's most dynamic playmakers and is the unquestioned leader of Pittsburgh's secondary. Elite ball hawks are invaluable in today's football landscape, and Fitzpatrick took his game up yet another notch last season, registering a career-high six interceptions. His versatility allows the secondary to remain flexible with the ability to camouflage their coverages pre-snap to make quarterbacks do their homework during their dropbacks. There's not really any assignment that Fitzpatrick can't be tasked with, which gives this coaching staff so much to work with on a weekly basis.

With long-time secondary running mates Terrell Edmunds and Cam Sutton now elsewhere, Pittsburgh will be asking even more from their 3x All-Pro safety. Since his arrival, the Steelers defense has done an excellent job at keeping a lid on explosive plays down the field, thanks in part to Fitzpatrick's range but also the consistent flow of communication on the back end. With several new moving parts being put into motion this upcoming season, that figures to be put to an even greater test this fall. Even after signing a massive extension, Fitzpatrick keeps finding ways to level up, and there's no reason to expect anything different this time around.

Pittsburgh had to wait a little longer for Damontae Kazee to make his debut due to an injury, but the move paid massive dividends after he was fully cleared to go. The Steelers deployed many more three safety sets last season under new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and that personnel grouping involving Kazee was insanely efficient at defending the pass. With Kazee on the field, the Steelers allowed just 6.5 yards per attempt while also seeing their INT % double, according to Sports Info Solutions. Similar to Fitzpatrick, Kazee brings alignment versatility in the back end, but he's a very willing risk taker, leading to splash play opportunities.

The front office likely prioritized retaining him in free agency because of his playmaking skills, as his ball skills have been evident since his college days at San Diego State. Without Edmunds in the fold, Kazee could potentially see more time on the field and in the box on early downs in particular, which will be slightly different from his primary usage last season. Kazee is light for the position at just 174 pounds, leading to plenty of missed tackles at prior spots, but that wasn't an issue last season in Pittsburgh. This safety pairing should be a joy to watch and a terror for opposing quarterbacks to game plan for on a weekly basis.

Fighting for a Role: Keanu Neal

In addition to re-signing Damontae Kazee, Pittsburgh also brought in former first-round pick, Keanu Neal. This is an intriguing addition because of the contrasting body types and skill sets between him and the other safety options currently on the roster. He’s rocked up at 215 pounds, with plenty of experience at the position but has also played some linebacker/dime backer in previous stops. Neal is a role-specific player who’s more effective when kept in the box as opposed to centerfield, but the Steelers have multiple guys who already do that at such a high level. He’s likely to garner playing time and bring a violent, tone-setting presence to the secondary next season.

Fighting for a Spot: Elijah Riley, Miles Killebrew, Tre Norwood

Elijah Riley is a name that has quietly generated a little buzz this summer after playing sparingly in 2022. Now with his third NFL team in four seasons, Riley is attempting to seize the opportunity and make Pittsburgh his home moving forward. He’s an interesting dark horse to make the roster, mainly due to his experience playing multiple positions, both at safety and cornerback. With so much uncertainty about how the Steelers might divide up the slot responsibilities this year, Riley could potentially throw his name into that mix as well. Like every end-of-the-roster possibility, it will, in part, come down to special teams contributions in order to stick.

Getting on the field as a seventh-round rookie is no easy task, but Tre Norwood accomplished just that, contributing in sub packages in 2021 before seeing his playing time reduced this past season. Even aside from his athletic limitations, the biggest sore weakness in his game is that he struggles immensely as a tackler. During his two seasons in Pittsburgh, Norwood has missed 20% of his tackling attempts per PFF. He’s not overly physical and thus needs to make some impressive plays in coverage to give himself a legit shot at retaining a spot on the 53-man roster.

Miles Killebrew may not offer a ton to the defensive side of the ball at this stage of his career, but he’s still a productive and capable special teams contributor. You have to admire the sacrifice that Killebrew has made since coming into the league in 2016, having been a four phase special teamer since day one. It should be noted, however, that the now 30-year-old only registered two special teams tackles last season, which were a career-low, according to PFF. He will once again have to prove value to the squad in this regard in order to hang around in 2023. 

Fighting for a Practice Squad Spot: Kenny Robinson

After making history as the first XFL player to ever be drafted into the NFL, Kenny Robinson’s journey to the promised land has been anything but conventional. Robinson is a local product, having played his college ball at West Virginia before spending the first several seasons of his professional career with the Carolina Panthers. Robinson hasn’t been able to consistently get on the field much at this level but perhaps it was his reputation as a ball hawk that drew the Steelers to signing him to a futures deal in January. He picked off seven passes over his final two seasons with the Mountaineers way back when and he’ll need to show off his playmaking skills once again this summer to complete the upset and force his way on the roster.

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