We know have an entire half-season’s body of work upon which to judge Mike Mitchell in comparison to last season. While it’s obvious that much of his playing better has to do with being notably healthier and more in-tuned with the defense and his teammates, I also think he is able to play freer and more in his comfort zone with Troy Polamalu gone.
This is most evident in the running game, where the safeties have become more interchangeably. Especially working with Robert Golden for the past four weeks, Mitchell’s tasks have been more varied, playing in the box against the run more, or playing deep when Golden is covering the slot.
I wrote earlier this week that Mitchell has been stepping into the shoes of Ryan Clark, one of whose greatest attributes was the ability to cut a run down before it broke too far, and we saw some of that from the seventh-year safety.
Late in the first quarter, Jeremy Hill broke through the front seven on a 15-yard gain. Mitchell came in from nearly 20 yards deep to meet the sizable back head-on, absorbing the blow and taking him down after a couple more yards.
Midway through the second quarter, he checked off another box on the Ryan Clark rundown, providing the big hit in the passing game, something that has become much harder to do within the rules in recent years. We all saw this play.
Mitchell got up and speared Marvin Jones in the midsection as he elevated for an overthrown ball over the middle, sending him to the grass in a heap on a clean play that fortunately left him uninjured and able to return to the game.
On the first play of the second half, Mitchell was playing deep safety 18 yards off the line to start. As the Bengals pulled to the right to open a hole on the left side of the Steelers’ defense, the safety came up and cut Hill down as he tried to work away from Mitchell after a six-yard gain.
Later in the game, on the Bengals’ first play of the fourth quarter, Mitchell did miss a tackle in the passing game. Off a quick pass to the tight end over the middle, the safety struggled to size up the runner in the open field, getting an arm on him but unable to wrap up.
Two plays later, however, he did well to get over to the sideline on a deep target to A.J. Green, which forced the quarterback to try to place the ball on the receiver’s outside shoulder. He had beaten the corner, and had the ball been over the top, it would have been an easy reception, but Mitchell prevented that throw from even being made.
Toward the end of that drive, it was Mitchell who stopped Hill at the five-yard line after a 12-yard run up the middle on which he looked to threaten to break it into the end zone. Three plays later, the Steelers recorded an interception in the end zone.
Of course, Mitchell finished the game with an interception of his own off a deep ball partially deflecting by the corner covering Green. With the ball popped up in the air, Mitchell came over to pluck it and returned it 17 yards.
The veteran only had three more plays in the game, as he suffered a concussion making a tackle on another breakaway play on the Bengals’ go-ahead drive, missing the last seven snaps. But he has returned to full practice already and appears set to make his 25th straight start for the Steelers in two seasons.