The Pittsburgh Steelers have, by and large, been on an upward swing over the course of the past two and a half seasons after they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and failed to win a postseason game in four straight years.
Last season saw them gain that elusive playoff victory, though they came up short with about three minutes left in the Divisional round a week later. Their offense took off, and their defense improved, showing playmaking ability and opportunism.
But there are still a lot of unanswered questions facing the team as we crack into free agency territory. As an exercise, we like to take a stab at some of those questions, presenting arguments for the pros and cons of each side of the coin. This is the optimist’s take on the following question.
Question: What sort of impact will free safety Mike Mitchell be able to have on the defense in 2016?
The Steelers made free agent safety Mike Mitchell a rare ‘splash’ signing in 2014 when they signed him to a five-year, $25 million contract to immediately enter the starting lineup.
His first season with the team, however, was largely viewed as a disappointment, for not the least of which being his inability to produce a single interception, which is not what you want from a safety you’re paying on average $5 million a season.
Of course, there were a number of explanations floated around to account for his struggles, the foremost obviously being the fact that he had multiple tears in his groin that he played with through the season, injuries dating back to earlier than training camp.
The fact that he was new to the system, and learning to work with Troy Polamalu—he even acknowledged that it was easier to work with Will Allen—were other cited explanations for why his 2014 season wasn’t what many hoped.
But his 2015 performance was much more in line with expectations as he cemented himself as one of the defense’s best players and enforcers. He recorded a career-high 80 tackles to go along with three interceptions, including two in the end zone, in addition to forcing a couple of fumbles and recovering two more.
It was precisely that sort of impact, splash play that the Steelers were hoping for, and he showed that he can deliver. And while turnovers can be a fluctuating reality, he has given reason to believe that his is a performance he can replicate.
After all, he recorded four interceptions and two forced fumbles in his first serious starting time with the Panthers in 2013, which is what earned him the contract with the Steelers in the first place. He also recorded 3.5 sacks, but has yet to record one in Pittsburgh, which suggests to me that there is still more impact that he can deliver.
Mitchell still played through some injuries last year as well, which occasionally required him to come off the field, the healthier he is, of course, the better chance he stands of playing at a high level. He took major strides in that direction and improved upon some weaknesses that he still had in Carolina, in fact, among them cleaning up some missed tackles and poor angles.
It would be fair to say that his trajectory is currently trending upward, or at the very least, plateauing to a comfortable level. Perhaps he won’t induce five turnovers every year—that is an impressive total—but he has shown that he can be a defensive staple and foundational player to a quality unit.