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 pessimist’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 rarely make additions to their starting lineup via the use of free agency—and if they do, it often ends up being a temporary fix as a result of a lack of other resources, as when Cam Thomas started at left defensive end in 2014, or Arthur Moats started at outside linebacker in parts of the last two seasons.
They have done so this season on offense—an even rarer phenomenon—with the signing of Ladarius Green, but they also used free agency to acquire a new long-term starting free safety in 2014 when they signed Mike Mitchell to a five-year, $25-million contract.
Mitchell was coming off his first extended appearance as a starter, during which he intercepted four passes, forced two fumbles, and recorded 3.5 sacks. But the only number in that realm that he lived up to in his first season was the forced fumbles. The rest, among other facets of his performance, was lacking.
Much of those concerns were alleviated last season when he recorded three interceptions and forced two fumbles, recovering two others, although the sacks had not shown up. He also recorded a new career-high in tackles and cleaned up some of his tackling issues.
But what about from here on out?
It is worth pointing out that, while he has not yet missed a start in Pittsburgh, he has not stayed healthy, partly due to the way that he plays, but also partly due to other factors. In spite of the relentless nature of his training regimen, he has often played battered and bruised to an extent that has required him to come off the field. And if he can’t play healthy, he can’t play efficiently, or consistently.
Mitchell will be turning 29 in June, so is not getting any younger, and the secondary around him has not exactly been upgraded, which will only place greater burden and responsibility on him both in terms of performance and leadership, as well as communication.
As far as turnovers go, they are frequently a fickle thing, which comes and goes over time. He forced five turnovers last year, but there is no guarantee he comes close to that again, nor do I believe there are strong indicators in the way he plays that would predict repeatability in this respect.
Of greatest concern is the most practical of matters, that being the flaws in his game. with respect to coverage, he has at times been slow to diagnose the direction of a pass, and the defense has gotten fortunate for some bad throws. He continues to show disregard for tackling form, which results in missed tackles, and on broken plays, he struggles to adapt and make the stop when a play is made, as we saw a time or two last year in which he failed to make the tackle. As he approaches his 30s, especially if he fails to maintain his health, he will have less of his natural physical abilities to rely upon.