The Pittsburgh Steelers spent their offseason trying to get both younger and faster on defense. Though drafted players like linebacker Ryan Shazier have gotten most of the attention, new safety Mike Mitchell has been flying under the radar but could make more of an impact than any of the team's other additions.
Mitchell was signed as a free agent in March to replace departed free safety Ryan Clark. He spent four seasons with the Oakland Raiders before being signed to a one-year deal with the Carolina Panthers, where he spent the 2013 season as part of one of the NFL's top defenses.
Still, Mitchell didn't get much recognition for the Panthers defense's meteoric rise, granted that he only spent one year with the team. However, it was easily the best season of his career. Mitchell had 66 combined tackles, 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, four interceptions and eight passes defensed while giving up just one touchdown in coverage, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Mitchell's versatility makes him a great addition to Dick LeBeau's Steelers defense. He has the capability to bring pressure to opposing quarterbacks when asked, as well as track running backs and defend receivers in coverage. He's also an aggressive, hard-hitting player, making him a good partner for strong safety Troy Polamalu.
The secondary has been a cause for concern for the Steelers, particularly at cornerback where Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen are considered the starters on the outside with William Gay working the slot. Taylor and Allen in particular gave up a combined 11 touchdowns in coverage last year while picking off opposing quarterbacks just three times.
Mitchell brings both youth and playmaking abilities to the Steelers secondary. He'll be good support in coverage to the two outside corners. His youth and speed—two things Clark lacked in 2013—also make him more of a threat to opposing offenses. Suddenly, Taylor or Allen seem like less of a liability in the pass defense when Mitchell is there to assist.
He is also playing with a chip on his shoulder. Mitchell is not interested in hearing that his standout 2013 was owed to the strength of the Panthers defensive front. In speaking to ESPN's Scott Brown on the issue, he said, "A lot of times last year people were talking about the front seven I played with and they were very talented. Sometimes you're overlooked, but that's just another chip to put on my shoulder and play football."
He added that he "absolutely" should have been voted to the Pro Bowl last season.
The biggest asset that Mitchell brings to the Steelers is his ability to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, which is especially important this year with questions lingering about the team's outside linebackers.
LeBeau, speaking to Brown, has expressed how impressed he's been with Mitchell's all-around skill set, but he made it clear that blitzing is one of his biggest strengths: "Mike Mitchell is very fast and a good, solid tackler. An excellent blitzer, actually. I looked at quite a bit of his tape during the free agency period and you had to look pretty far to find any weaknesses."
The Steelers defense notched 34 sacks last year but only three came from members of the secondary. Given LeBeau's system, that is a very low number of sacks coming from the safeties and cornerbacks. Mitchell showed that he can harass quarterbacks much like Polamalu has, and the pair can provide the organized chaos that LeBeau prefers from his pass rush.
Mitchell may not yet be a household name, but he's found himself a defense that will allow him to shine. Today's NFL requires safeties to do triple duty, and LeBeau's defense certainly demands a lot out of the position.
Mitchell—with his football acumen, his aggressive attitude and his five years of on-field experience—seems capable of doing all that is asked of him. He won't remain under the radar for long.