Sixth-year safety Damontae Kazee was a late free agent signing this year in Pittsburgh, signing a mere three days after the completion of the NFL Draft. After spending his first four years with the Atlanta Falcons, he’s become a bit of a journeyman being on his third team in as many seasons.
Through his experience and ability to make plays, he generated some buzz at the possibility of him being a chess piece in this Steelers’ defense. Those thoughts were further confirmed through the preseason when the team debuted some big nickel looks with Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds, and Kazee all on the field at once. It had been done in the past, however, Kazee’s talent in that spot made it an especially attractive look for this defense. The idea appealed to the creative juices of many thinking of how Defensive Coordinator Teryl Austin could move the three all over the field, giving the opposing offense a plethora of different looks. Having guys you can trust to play numerous different spots can open up a world of new things for a defense.
Those fantasies and dreams came to a screeching halt when Kazee suffered a wrist/arm injury in the final preseason game. Originally it was thought he might be gone for the year, but shortly after it was learned that Kazee was likely a candidate to return later in the season thanks to the League’s recent changes to the Injured Reserve rules. Following the Steelers’ bye week, Kazee was finally activated for his first regular season game action in Week 10 against the New Orleans Saints. Ironically, starting safety MInkah Fitzpatrick was deemed inactive Saturday afternoon with an emergency appendectomy. This not only removed the idea of a big nickel package, that many had been looking forward to, but also meant Kazee would be the starting strong safety.
Kazee performed well in his Pittsburgh debut and was a big part of the Steelers securing their third victory of the year. Let’s take a closer look at what he put on film, and why you should be excited about his injection into this defense with a healthy Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds in the coming weeks.
I didn’t want to bury the lede, so let’s start by looking at Kazee’s interception. The play came at a huge part of the game and ended up being my ‘Steelers Turning Point’ for Week 10. The defense is in a 2-man coverage, which consists of two high safeties patrolling their deep halves with man coverage across the board underneath. In this case, all the underneath coverage defenders were playing man with an inside shade. The idea is that it puts the quarterback in the situation of having to throw over a defender in order to complete the pass. In this case, it works to perfection. Dalton throws the dig high, causing the WR to tip it into the arms of the charging Kazee.
Something that will be common with just about all of these clips is how quickly Kazee diagnoses what his eyes see, clicks, and closes. He’s extremely comfortable coming downhill and if it weren’t for the ball being tipped in the air, it would have resulted in a car crash. Kazee’s reaction time to turn from a heat-seeking missile to an athlete catching a football was impressive. These are the types of plays we’ve seen Steelers’ defensive backs fail to finish this year, likely costing them multiple games in the process.
As I previously mentioned, the interception changed the entire complexion of the game and the Steelers were able to add seven points off the turnover, putting them up by ten points, and effectively put the game out of reach for the Saints.
I knew Kazee was a guy that wouldn’t be afraid to hit, but I was pleasantly surprised by what he showed in coverage. Here, watch him drive on this curl route. Kazee opens the gate to turn and run just as the receiver breaks down for the curl. He’s still able to click and close on this curl effectively covering it up. Great rep.
This next clip, while it’s a completion, is still a nice play by Kazee. The Steelers are in cover 3 and the linebackers all get sucked up by the fake handoff. This leaves the window for the six-step post to be wide open. It’s a first down, but Kazee limits this play to zero yards after the catch thanks to his great angle and burst downhill. His tackling will really be an asset to this defense.
Kazee didn’t take long to stick his face in the fan. On the Saints’ fourth play from scrimmage, he was able to run and lay a shoulder into running back, Alvin Kamara, before he went out of bounds. Kazee wants to make you feel it every time he makes contact.
Here on a zone read play, Alvin Kamara is able to cut it back and find a lot of green grass. If you look at the demeanor of all the defensive backs, they look hesitant to go head-to-head with Kamara. Tackling Alvin Kamara, one-on-one is no easy feat, but Kazee was able to do it. It’s not a crazy impressive play, but again just stresses how his tackling can help limit big plays for this defense.
There’s also a presence that Kazee carries with him that I think can be a huge asset to this defense as he patrols the backend. He’s got an old-school demeanor and isn’t afraid to take your head off. He may not be Ryan Clark of the Steelers’ late 2000s defenses, but in terms of hitting power and wanting to separate receivers from the ball, he may be the closest we’ve seen since Clark moved on to ESPN. In the clip below, the pass ends up being tipped by both Edmunds and Levi Wallace, but if it were to get through, Kazee was ready to lay the wood right into the chest of 6’4″ 230-pound Juwan Johnson. He’s not afraid of anything.
This type of mentality may get Kazee into trouble at the same time. He drew an unnecessary roughness for his hit on a defenseless receiver on the sidelines late in the first half. Many complained that it was shoulder-to-shoulder, but Kazee clearly hit the receiver in the head or neck area resulting in an easy flag. This play would have been praised 10 years ago as Kazee separates the receiver from the ball, but the game has simply moved past these types of plays.
Regardless, if he can limit the penalties, this type of presence in the backend of a defense can be helpful. Now that these types of plays are on film, you’ll have receivers thinking twice about passes across the middle of the field and cover 2 hole shots when #23 is lurking back there.
After going through the tape it was easy to see why Kazee was in the top-five graded Steelers by Pro Football Focus this week. While there wasn’t a ton of “flash” outside of his interception, he was assignment-sound and did his job. All around, he’s a player. I’m excited that we get to watch through the back half of the season. Having yet another solid safety to play around with on top of Fitzpatrick and Edmunds feels like an embarrassment of riches.
Off the field and in the locker room, Kazee also seems to bring emotion and fun to the game. Numerous guys from Teryl Austin to Cam Heyward have spoken highly of Kazee’s presence.
He will certainly be a guy that will be easy to cheer for. If Minkah Fitzpatrick is ready to go in week 11, we’ll likely see a lot less of Kazee, but from what he put on tape, the defensive minds in Pittsburgh may be trying to find even more ways to get him on the field.
What are your thoughts on Damontae Kazee’s debut? Let me know in the comments!