Last offseason, the Pittsburgh Steelers did something that’s not very common for the Rooney family, and that’s dip their toes into the free agent pool, when they signed safety Mike Mitchell to a 5-year/$25 million deal.
On paper, the signing looked good, as it added an instant replacement for vacated starter and longtime fan favorite, Ryan Clark. Coming off an impressive 2013 campaign with the Carolina Panthers in which he posted 66 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 4 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles, he looked as if he was rounding into form, resembling his oft-maligned second round draft choice status back in 2009 by the Oakland Raiders.
Al Davis, always one enamored with speed, obviously had a twinkle in his eye when the 6-foot, 210-pound enforcer of a safety ran a 4.39 at his Ohio University Pro Day. But his speed was anything but evident in 2014, and news has surfaced as of late that he played the entire season with both groin muscles torn. That pain tolerance in and of itself should give him a benefit of the doubt for his play last season, as his pain tolerance has to be off the charts. However, did it take him several years into his career to come into his own, or was he a byproduct of the fantastic front seven the Panthers fielded?
We start at the heart of Carolina’s ’13 defense, with 2013 DPOY Luke Kuechly. Their unquestioned leader, he led the team to the top overall defense in only his second year in the league. That year, the Panthers had the NFL’s top-ranked defensive unit, as well as #1 against the pass and #3 against the run. They also led the NFL in sacks with 60, a far cry from the 33 posted by Pittsburgh last season.
Up front, the team fielded it’s two stud anchors against the run in rookie defensive tackles Kawann Short and Star Lotuleilei. They kept blockers off of Kuechly, and the interior of the defense resembled a brick wall. On the edges it was just as formidable, led by Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy and the reliable play of fellow bookend, Charles Johnson.
Basically, Mitchell’s play correlated to the talented front seven he was playing behind. Now granted playing with two torn groins could be looked at as a “get out of jail for free card”, if Pittsburgh wants to get the bang for their buck in regards to Mitchell’s contract, and receiving his 2013 playmaking capabilities, the front seven will obviously need to do its share of the dirty work, beginning first and foremost with the run and shutting it down.
The team made great strides in that down the stretch last season, finishing sixth in the league. What else will bring out the best in Mitchell is a pass rush that can harass opposing quarterbacks into those errant, “duds” of a throw that often result in picks. Perhaps 2013 first rounder Jarvis Jones had too much on his plate in his rookie year, as he was thrown into the fire in Dick LeBeau’s complex scheme. The team’s leader in sacks that year was Jason Worilds with 8, followed up by Cameron Heyward’s 5. For a 3-4 team that relies as much on QB pressure as Pittsburgh does, it’s a telling sign how bad their outside pass rush was when the second leading sacker is a 3-4 defensive lineman whose main responsibility is tying up blockers.
However, the arrow in 2015 should be pointed up for Mitchell, for several reasons. One, most obvious, is his health in regards to his groin muscles, which have since been surgically repaired. Second is the history of free agents in the Kevin Colbert era often struggle in the early goings. James Farrior is a great example.
Signed by Pittsburgh after being cast-off as a first round bust by the New York Jets, Farrior led the NFL in tackles with 142 in 2001, his last season in NY. However, he didn’t have the same success in his inaugural year in the Steel City, recording exactly 60 less tackles than the previous season. Needless to say, he bounced back the following year, and in 2004 he was named All-Pro and arguably robbed of DPOY honors as he led the Steelers defense en route to a 15-1 regular season record.
Also, Mitchell was transitioning to a new defensive scheme, and as we’ve seen all too often, new players often struggle to grasp LeBeau’s defense right off the bat, it takes time. Even the great Troy Polamalu knows this. So for the many immediately writing off Mitchell after a less-than-stellar 2014 season in town, let’s reserve that right until we see what the 2015 results begin to stream in.