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Fitzpatrick: Modified slate could benefit the Steelers

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.

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