The Pittsburgh Steelers spent much of the time between their last playoff victory and now replenishing their roster in preparation for their next chance to make a push for a championship. Last season showed signs that the team was on its way out of that transitional phase after posting a division-winning 11-5 record following back to back .500 seasons.
Still, the Steelers failed to make it out of the divisional round, and have lost their last three postseason contests, dating back to Super Bowl XLV. They followed up that 2010 run with a 12-4 wildcard campaign that saw a first-round exit, and subsequently failed to return to the playoffs the following two years.
So how close might they be to righting the ship and returning to that place that they have been more than any other franchise—that is, holding up the Lombardi Trophy? One way to attempt to measure that would be to compare how this season’s lineup projects against past teams.
For these purposes, it might be helpful to cite both the 2008 and 2010 teams, which are, respectively, the teams that have claimed their most recent Super Bowl championship and their most recent Super Bowl appearance.
During the mid-2000s, the Steelers turned the free safety spot over to Ryan Clark, a somewhat under the radar starter who had begun to carve out a career for himself in the league as a former undrafted free agent. He was being paired with a perennial Pro Bowler in Troy Polamalu.
Over the span of two seasons, both of those players are now gone, with Polamalu’s successor being Shamarko Thomas. Like Clark, Mike Mitchell was a free agent signing aimed to take over the free safety position. While he has time to catch up to the heights that Clark reached, he does have a ways to go based on last season.
While Clark’s first season or two with the Steelers was somewhat unspectacular, over time, he did become a very good player—in fact, among the better free safeties in the league, though more of a run stuffer than a center fielder. He made one Pro Bowl and would have gone to another as an alternate if not for an injury.
What really solidified his legacy, however, other than his huge hits, was his ability to organize the defense and keep everything humming without resulting in too many on-field errors in terms of missed assignments.
For a time, he was good for about 100 tackles and a couple of turnovers per season. I do think that Mitchell has that potential, and in fact should have a greater ceiling in terms of playmaking ability. Though he failed to record an interception last year, he did force two fumbles. Ideally, he will be used more on the blitz as well.
From early reports, it seems that Mitchell is a vocal communicator on the field, but there are issues to his game that need to be improved. His fundamentals break down too often when he goes in for the tackle, and has a tendency to take bad angles, perhaps overestimating his speed. He was heavily criticized in his first year, but he does have the potential to be a strong starting safety for this team with the group being built around him.