The Pittsburgh Steelers have parted ways with a number of aging talents that epitomized success in the community during the height of their careers. While their on-field assets may have diminished over the years, however, one should not underestimate the ripple effect that their departures could have within the locker room.
While the concepts of camaraderie and leadership may be somewhat elusive when it comes to the team chemistry of a sports team, there is no doubt some truth to the idea that these qualities help build a winning team, especially when it comes to a game as interconnected with one another as is football.
The last several offseasons have seen some quality championship characters exit stage right, and their vacant lockers no doubt diminished the overall character of the room as a whole. Just recently, the team saw both Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu retire, even if their departures were already in the plans for this spring.
While the Steelers do maintain a select body of leaders within the locker room, which I have already explored, it’s equally important for them to foster a group of emerging players who can enter leadership roles of their own in time.
I think that if the Steelers are going to have a new leader emerge on defense this season in a way that can make a tangible difference, it will come from a player who is more new to the team than new to the league, and that would be free safety Mike Mitchell.
Understandably, there will be many who are not too happy about that possibility, given his disappointing first season with the team, although I believe there were exacerbating factors contributing to the unsteadiness of his performance.
In his second season, he should have the ability to play more freely and dynamically. Last year, he was largely limited to playing center field when he is capable of doing more than just that, especially with his range.
Like Ryan Clark before him, however, I can see Mitchell gradually emerging as a vocal leader on the defense, a knowledgeable player capable of barking out commands and firing up those around him both with his words and his play.
As we have seen, Mitchell is an energetic player on the field, certainly, which brought him perhaps more attention than was desired, but his is an energy that can spread throughout the team. And given the state of the secondary right now, the time is ripe for somebody to step up in any capacity.
Of course, before any of that matters much, he has to elevate his performance on the field, first and foremost. While he had a couple of signature plays during last season, including a pair of forced fumbles, he failed to have the impact that was projected for him.
With a greater understanding of the nuances of the defense, and hopefully a healthy groin, as well as greater familiarity and comfort with his teammates, however, I think it’s very possible that we see more of the player the Steelers thought they were signing during the last free agency period. The front office also seems to think so, given their decision to restructure his contract.