While the Pittsburgh Steelers may have gained some tangible evidence of improvement, improving their win total by three games and hosting a playoff game as a division champion for the first time in four seasons, there is no doubt that the team is far from a finished product.
No team, of course, is a finished product in the offseason. Every team loses players to free agency and retirement, and replaces them through the same free agency process, as well as the draft.
Some teams make more sweeping changes, hiring and firing new coaches, general managers, and front office staff, hoping that the next wholesale change will hit upon the correct formula. The Steelers are not an organization to make knee-jerk decisions; even with the departure of Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator, the contingency plan for his replacement had been known already for years.
With all of the change that occurs during the offseason, it’s often difficult to predict how a particular team might fare. They may wind up holding the Lombardi trophy or the first overall draft pick when all is said and done.
In order to gain a better feel for not only the issues facing the team this year, but how those issues might play out, it’s useful to take the devil’s advocate approach. This is the optimistic side of the coin.
Question: How will Mike Mitchell perform in his second season with the Steelers?
In a rare free agency ‘splurge’, the Steelers signed free safety Mike Mitchell last offseason to a five-year, $25 million contract to replace the aging and slowing Ryan Clark, pairing him with Troy Polamalu.
While his first season in Pittsburgh may not have gone exactly as most would have hoped, there is reason to believe that he can be a better player in his second year of the system.
It’s true that he excelled in his one season with the Panthers, but it’s also true that he was better set up to succeed in 2013 with the talent around him. He got the opportunity to showcase his dynamic playmaking ability, racking up sacks, interceptions, and forced fumbles.
It was that playmaking ability that largely attracted the Steelers to Mitchell, who had been lacking playmakers on the defensive side of the ball.
Mitchell did force two fumbles on the season with the Steelers, but the entire safety group failed to come away with an interception or a sack. He revealed after the team’s playoff loss that he had been playing the year with a groin injury.
Surely it must be difficult to adapt to a new system while you’re slowed down by a groin injury. And I would argue that he was slowed down, because there were a number of instances in which he showed greater speed in 2013 than in 2014. He missed some plays, but they can’t all be attributed to his occasional propensity to take bad angles.
Beyond that, the defense as a whole is beginning to take shape and show itself for what it will be as the personnel of the future solidifies. With more cohesion comes more precision, and less mistakes. Mitchell will be more free to play his own game, and with that, hopefully, will come more explosive plays.