July 5, 2022

The Pittsburgh Steelers have the second most expensive defense in the NFL. A large portion of that money is tied up into the contracts of Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick. Heyward and Watt received hefty contract extensions the previous two offseasons. Fitzpatrick recently agreed to an extension that makes him the NFL’s highest-paid safety

When asked about being part of a defense with so much financial commitment tied to it, Fitzpatrick said the Steelers’ recent playoff disappointment, not money, is what is motivating himself and his teammates as they prepare for the 2022 season. Fitzpatrick alluded to Pittsburgh’s 42-21 loss in January’s wild card round playoff game against the Chiefs. The Steelers’ defense started strong — it scored the game’s first touchdown on Watt’s fumble return for a score — before wiling under the pressure of Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs powerful offense. It was the third straight playoff game during which Pittsburgh surrendered at least 42 points. 

“I don’t think necessarily the money motivates us, but just how we conduct ourselves,” Fitzpatrick told reporters after signing his extension. “Obviously, last year was not to our standards at all. I know myself, T.J., Cam, all of us were not happy or pleased at all with the way the season ended. Especially in that playoff game, [it] was an embarrassment, honestly. Not our typical selves. That’s what motivates us. 

“Obviously, the money is a blessing and creates opportunity for everybody and our families. But when you say the money, it’s more about what they’re saying with they money. They’re saying, ‘Hey, we trust you to be the best and prepare to be the best and compete against the best and play A++ on a consistent basis.’ So it’s more of a show of that that I’m trying to hold myself to rather than just saying I got paid so I’ve got 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.”

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While the defense played a role in January’s loss, Pittsburgh’s offense didn’t help its cause. The Steelers gained just 257 total yards, with many of those yards coming after the game was out of reach. Pittsburgh rushed for just 56 yards, continuing an ongoing trend of lackluster efforts on the ground. 

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 to leave in free agency. The Steelers’ biggest moves on offense involved the quarterback position. They signed Mitchell Trubisky at the start of free agency, then used a first-round pick to acquire former Pitt standout Kenny Pickett. Those moves should help Pittsburgh’s offense be a more efficient unit while in the process putting the defense in more favorable spots. 

Speaking of the defense, the Steelers 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. In the draft, Pittsburgh added youth to its defensive line in the form of DeMarvin Leal, a versatile player who lined up at multiple positions at Texas A&M. The Steelers also brought back cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon after he led the Steelers in interceptions last season. 

“I’m really excited,” Fitzpatrick said about his defense. “Obviously, I’m excited about getting Ahkello back. I’m excited about Levi. I’m excited about Myles. We drafted well in the front. I think we have a young but experienced defense. We’ve got older guys who are great at coaching and getting the new guys ready to play. We’re going to need some new faces to step up. I’m very excited about this upcoming season.”

Pittsburgh’s defense won’t get another shot at Kansas City this season unless they face again in the playoffs. The Steelers will get a chance to settle a score against the Bengals, the defending AFC champions who have beaten Pittsburgh three straight times. Rest assured, the Steelers are motivated to turn the tables on the Bengals, who outscored the Steelers, 65-20, in their two matchups last season. But the Steelers are more focused on being the best defense they can be on a weekly basis and letting the chips fall where they may. 

“Whoever is in front of us, that’s who we’ve got to play,” Fitzpatrick said when asked about facing the Bengals. “Obviously, an extra chip that 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 Coach [Tomlin] likes to say, ‘A nameless gray face.’ And that’s no disrespect. … No matter who they are, no matter who’s in front of you, you’ve got to approach them as an NFL player.” 

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