PITTSBURGH, PA – The ball fluttered into the air and hung there for a split second. When it came back down to earth, it landed where it always seems to these days for the Pittsburgh Steelers: the seemingly omnipresent arms of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Pittsburgh's decision to send a 2020 first-round draft pick to Miami in mid-September in exchange for Fitzpatrick just hours after losing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the season in mid-September seemed gutsy at best and borderline reckless at worst. What if the Steelers struggled without their franchise cornerstone? What if the bottom fell out and the draft capital they needed to find Roethlisberger's successor belonged to the Dolphins instead?
They're not asking those questions anymore. Not with the Steelers suddenly rolling and their do-everything free safety in the middle of it all.
Fitzpatrick returned a fumble 43 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter and added a game-sealing pick in the final seconds to close out a brutish 17-12 victory over the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, spoiling Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald's homecoming in the process.
"Minkah's making all the plays," said Steelers cornerback Joe Haden, whose second interception of the season was among Pittsburgh's four takeaways. "Big plays. Impact plays. There's nothing else you can say. You watch the tape and see his impact is special."
Fitzpatrick pounced on a Jared Goff fumble and sprinted to the end zone to give the Steelers a 14-7 lead, his second touchdown in as many games following a tide-turning pick six against Indianapolis last week. His clinching interception after Goff pass intended for Robert Woods was swatted away by Haden gave Fitzpatrick six takeaways — five picks and one fumble recoveries — in seven games with the Steelers (5-4).
"It's crazy to just see him back there making plays on the ball all the time," Pittsburgh linebacker Bud Dupree said. "Not one time but all the time. Every game. Every game Minkah is making big plays on the back end."
The Steelers have needed nearly every one during a four-game winning streak that has helped them emerge from a 1-4 start. Pittsburgh has done it despite an offense that remains very much a work in progress. The Steelers again struggled to move the ball against Los Angeles, managing just 273 yards while playing without starting running backs James Conner and Benny Snell Jr.