Back at the start of training camp, veteran Pittsburgh Steelers starting free safety Mike Mitchell was asked if he felt that he was able to establish himself as one of the top safeties last season after his injury-hampered first year with the team the year before. He told the reporter that he feels he is one of the best whenever he is healthy.
Yesterday, Pro Football Focus Tweeted an interesting and relevant statistics from their data logs, noting that in 2015, Mitchell posted the lowest yards per snap in coverage rate in the AFC. To translate that a bit, it means that on a per-snap basis lined up in coverage, Mitchell gave up the fewest yards amongst safeties in the AFC.
While there is no elaboration on the data point—for instance, how that compares to the top safeties in the NFC, or, more to the point, how many yards per snap in coverage he actually gave up—it stands to reason that being on the top of that particular list is a good place to be.
While nearly all have recognized that Mitchell’s 2015 season was a stark improvement from his first year in Pittsburgh, many have continued to hold in reserve the criticism that his coverage ability, in whatever capacity, is still lacking.
The most frequent criticism that I have read is that he is slow to recognize and respond to vertical passes aimed to either sideline. This is a failing in his game that I had not noticed myself as a trend, and so one that I did not put a lot of stock in myself, as far as the criticism goes.
While this data point is not explicitly tied to that—related instead, I presume, to be the instances in which he is the primary player in coverage—it certainly adds no credence to that particular criticism.
I am reminded of the goal line interception that Mitchell recorded against the Browns as a good example of his coverage skills, which, in better health, were more consistently on display last season in comparison to the year before.
While never necessarily regarded as the sort of safety who can regularly line up in the slot, say, the way that Troy Polamalu did in his heyday, Mitchell certainly does not lack for speed or agility, nor a willingness to project himself into a potential pass catcher.
It is Mitchell’s versatility to assume either the free or strong safety responsibilities and to do so equally well that made him attractive enough to the Steelers to sign him to one of their bigger free agency contracts in their recent history.
In the previously referenced interview, Mitchell asked to look at the numbers. In this case, we are looking at coverage numbers. In his traditional stat line, I see three interceptions and nine passes defensed, having gotten his hands on 12 passes as a safety. PFF’s yards per coverage snap statistic is yet another to set aside in his favor.