Few people were as outspokenly critical of Mike Mitchell as I was last year, consistently noting the poor angles, shoddy tackling, and over-aggressive nature that led to the Pittsburgh Steelers defense getting beat down the field constantly. Due to Troy Polamalu’s roaming style, Mitchell was often asked to cover a lot of ground on the back end, and despite his 4.3 speed, he consistently seemed out of position to make plays on the ball. When Mitchell was in position, it seemed head shots and personal fouls abounded, followed by trash-talking that he seemingly didn’t have the ability to back up if he wanted to.
When Mitchell took to Twitter to fire back inappropriately at critics a year ago, our abhorrence for him only grew, citing his immaturity as a major issue for a young defense to overcome. The team’s actions seemed to support that notion, as they suspended the hard-hitting safety from social media for the rest of the year.
I rolled my eyes with the rest of Steelers nation after the season, when Mitchell pointed to a groin injury as part of the reason for his struggles during the 2014 campaign. Playing injured just didn’t seem like something an all-talk, no-walk guy like Mitchell would do, so we dismissed it as an excuse with a nonchalant wave of the hand. The move to sign Mitchell looked like just another one of Kevin Colbert’s many misses that offseason, leaving the safety position in serious doubt for the near future.
I was wrong. We were wrong. And the time has come for us to admit it and put aside last year, because the 2015 Mike Mitchell has come to play. And hit.
At the beginning of the preseason, I was terrified of the mess of safeties Pittsburgh had at their disposal, fearing a splash-play fest would be a weekly occurrence for opposing offenses. And when Mitchell missed large chunks of time during the preseason, those fears only multiplied.
Instead Mitchell has easily been one of Pittsburgh’s best defensive players this season, not only eliminating big plays for opposing offenses with sound positioning and excellent range, but also creating plenty of splash plays of his own. His interception in the late stages of Pittsburgh’s Week 6 matchup against the Cardinals snuffed out what could have been a game-winning drive for Arizona, and Mitchell’s pick against Cincinnati should have been enough to seal the victory for Pittsburgh in Week 8.
Mitchell’s hit on Dion Lewis in Week 1 forced a Patriots fumble near the Steelers goal line in the fourth quarter, and had Will Allen been able to locate the loose ball between his legs, the Steelers would have regained possession down 21-14 with over ten minutes left in the game. Instead, Rob Gronkowski recovered the ball at the one and caught his third touchdown of the game minutes later to make it 28-14.
Fast forward eight weeks, and you see Mitchell flying up in run support to deliver a knockout blow to Raiders running back Latavius Murray on Sunday, sending the running back to the locker room and the football bouncing along the grass into the arms of Jarvis Jones. The turnover came at a pivotal moment in the game as well, as Ben Roethlisberger had just thrown an ill-advised interception that gave the Raiders the ball in business at the Steelers 32 in the third quarter of a 21-21 game.
That’s what Mitchell has done all season long, break up passes, blow up backs in run support, and intimidate opposing offenses with his style of play and his demeanor. Mitchell nearly sawed Marvin Jones in half with a huge hit against Cincinnati in Week 8, and belted Ravens wide receiver Kamar Aiken down the field a few weeks prior. Every time Mitchell hits he send a message, and whatever he doesn’t communicate with the tackle, he is sure to verbalize fully after the play.
So the question is, why do Steelers fans hate Mitchell? Almost every one of the franchise’s defenders we have known and loved over the years has talked inordinate amounts of trash, from Mean Joe Greene and Jack Lambert to Greg Lloyd and Joey Porter. Steelers history is full of defenders who not only intimidated opponents with their physicality, but also with their verbal demeanor during games. This is a city that prides itself on its players not backing down from anyone, a mentality that Mitchell displays every single week.
So why do so many rush to point out Mitchell’s minor lapses? Oh he forced a game-changing fumble, but was too busy grandstanding to notice the loose ball, as if playing with emotion were a sin. There is Mitchell celebrating after a big hit despite the fact that the offense just gained yardage, as if energizing a defense to rally themselves after a negative play was taboo. Heck, I’ve even seen people criticize Mitchell for being excited after an incomplete pass that he personally didn’t break up, as if celebrating the success of his unit can only occur if the safety made some highlight-reel play in the process. It’s petty to take such issues with an emotionally-charged player displaying his emotions in an emotionally-charged game, and frankly, I thought that would always be one thing this fanbase understood.
This guy told Steve Smith where to stick it, told A.J. Green he was coming for him next, and has proceeded to wreck opponents early and often each week with big shots all over the field. He chirps constantly and backs it up with his play, unlike last year when his limitations were more apparent than his successes. To top it off, he has just one personal foul this season on a ticky-tacky call when he and Green got in each other’s faces. Mitchell has also missed just five tackles this season, never more than one in a game, one of the better marks on the team. What is not to like? The spirited safety should be a fan favorite if anything.
Some have cited the longtime quiet leadership of Polamalu being replaced by Mitchell’s more hot-headed personality as tough for the fanbase to adjust to. That perspective may be true, but it doesn’t make it any less misguided. Mitchell is a leader on the field and in the locker room, facts that are backed by a style of play this city has adored in all of its defenders for as long as I can remember. I respect Polamalu as much as any player that has every played the game, but the reality is that his way doesn’t need to be every defender’s way, and we as a fanbase need to be able to accept that.
Mitchell’s play has been a massive factor in the defense’s turnaround this season. Does he occasionally still do something hair-brained? Absolutely, but to cling to those solitary moments while ignoring or disregarding consistently strong play at the safety position is simply foolish. Like it or not, Mitchell is doing everything we have to come to love and cherish in former Steelers greats. The only question is if you’ll accept the Steelers safety like so many that have come before him, or if you’ll continue to let the past warp your view of the present. If you should choose to take the blinders off, I’m confident there is a fan favorite just waiting to be extolled by this great city.