The Pittsburgh Steelers have the second most expensive defense in the NFL. Much of that money is tied to the contracts of Cam Heyward, TJ Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick. Heyward and Watt received hefty contract extensions in the previous two offseasons. Fitzpatrick recently accepted an extension which makes him the .
Asked about being part of a defense with so much financial commitment, Fitzpatrick said the Steelers’ recent disappointment in the playoffs, not the money, is what motivates him and his teammates as they are gearing up for the 2022 season. Fitzpatrick alluded to Pittsburgh’s 42-21 loss in January’s playoff game against the Chiefs. The Steelers defense started strong – it scored the first touchdown of the game on Watt’s fumble return for a score – before caving under pressure from Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ powerful offense. It was the third straight playoff game in which Pittsburgh gave up at least 42 points.
“I don’t necessarily think the money drives us, just how we conduct ourselves,” Fitzpatrick told reporters after signing his extension. “Obviously last year didn’t live up to our expectations at all. I know myself, TJ, Cam, we weren’t all happy or happy with how the season ended Especially in this playoff game, [it] was a shame, honestly. Not our typical self. That’s what drives us.
“Obviously money is a blessing and creates opportunity for everyone and our families. But when you say money, it’s more about what they say with their money. They say, ‘Hey, we trust you to be the best and prepare to be the best and compete against the best and play A++ consistently. ‘ So it’s more of a show that I’m trying to keep up rather than just saying I got paid, so I have to play well. … Now it’s my duty to go out and play at a high level and show them that I deserve this compensation.”
While the defense played a part in the January loss, Pittsburgh’s offense didn’t help its cause. The Steelers gained just 257 total yards, with many of those yards out of game range. Pittsburgh rushed for just 56 yards, continuing a continuing trend of lackluster field efforts.
To revive the offense, the Steelers signed veteran linemen James Daniels and Mason Cole while re-signing tackle Chukwuma Okorafor. They also drafted receivers George Pickens and Calvin Austin III after allowing JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington out in free agency. The Steelers’ biggest offensive moves were at quarterback. They signed Mitchell Trubisky early in free agency, then used a first-round pick to acquire former Pitt star Kenny Pickett. These moves should help Pittsburgh’s offense be a more effective unit while putting the defense in more favorable spots.
Speaking of defense, the Steelers have also made several changes on that side of the ball this offseason. They signed linebacker Myles Jack and cornerback Levi Wallace to team-friendly deals in free agency. During the draft, Pittsburgh added youth to its defensive line in the form of DeMarvin Leal, a versatile player who lined up in multiple positions at Texas A&M. The Steelers also brought back cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon after leading the Steelers in interceptions last season.
“I’m really excited,” Fitzpatrick said of his defense. “Obviously I’m delighted to get Ahkello back. I’m delighted with Levi. I’m delighted with Myles. We drafted well ahead. I think we have a young but experienced defense. We have older guys who are great at coaching and preparing new players to play. We’re going to need some new faces to step in. I’m very excited about this coming season.
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Pittsburgh’s defense won’t get another chance at Kansas City this season unless they meet again in the playoffs. The Steelers will have the opportunity to settle a score against the Bengals, the defending AFC champions who have beaten Pittsburgh three times in a row. Rest assured, the Steelers are motivated to turn the tide against the Bengals, who outscored the Steelers, 65-20, in their two meetings last season. But the Steelers are more focused on being the best possible defense on a weekly basis and dropping chips where they can.
“Whoever’s in front of us, we have to play against him,” Fitzpatrick said when asked if he would face the Bengals. “Obviously the extra chip they’re going to have on their shoulder and the extra target they’re going to have on their back. When we line up with anybody in the league, as a coach [Tomlin] likes to say, ‘A nameless gray face.’ And it’s not a lack of respect. … No matter who they are, no matter who’s in front of you, you have to approach them as an NFL player.”