The Pittsburgh Steelers welcomed back defensive starter Mike Mitchell yesterday, who participated in his first padded practice of training camp working with Shamarko Thomas. The veteran defensive back knows that this time is crucial for the two safeties to come together and work in cohesion with one another, something that requires reps to get right.
Naturally, that’s something that has been lacking during training camp, as both Mitchell and Thomas have dealt with injuries early on. In the case of the latter, he returned last week from a shoulder injury and participated in the Steelers’ second preseason game on Friday.
Mitchell has been nursing a hamstring injury, taking the cautious approach in contrast to how he handled his groin injury last year, and he was eased back into practice yesterday, with limited participation in team drills.
Though the pair is only now getting to work together in pads, Mitchell doesn’t seemed overly worried, citing the amount of work that they put in during the spring, when both were healthy, according to Dale Lolley.
He compared his spring work with Thomas to the relationship that he forged with Will Allen during the former’s first season in Pittsburgh, as his starting partner, Troy Polamalu, regularly worked out on his own during the offseason, typically only participating in mandatory practices.
Mitchell told Lolley that he thinks he and Allen “had a little better rapport last year” than he had with Polamalu because of this.
Both head coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler yesterday acknowledged the importance of the two safeties working together upon Mitchell’s return, doing nothing to minimize the significance of the relationship between the two safeties.
After all, the two had never played together before. Thomas actually trained with Polamalu in the offseason last year, so he wasn’t around during the spring, for starters. Thomas hardly saw the field during the season, either.
Thomas is entering his third season with the team, but has had limited playing time on defense in his career. Mitchell is in just his second year in Pittsburgh, and is still more or less the new guy in the safety group, as far as the core four players are concerned, the other being Robert Golden.
Aside from the essential nature of the safeties being in sync just in general, the fact that the Steelers are actively attempting to incorporate elements of the Cover 2 defense this season makes it all the more important that Mitchell and Thomas get their reps in together.
We saw in the last preseason game that one long touchdown pass was allowed in part due to Thomas being late rotating over and getting the proper width and depth to defend the tight end’s deep crossing route, which led to a touchdown.
The defense as a whole is a work in progress, as are all of its subsequent parts. The relationship between Mitchell and Thomas is a subset of that necessary progress, as is their adaptation to the Cover 2. Now that the two are finally on the field together, it’s time for some essential building blocks to be laid into the foundation of this unit.