The Pittsburgh Steelers kick off their regular season in just one more day, and while there have certainly been a number of stumbles along the way from the end of the 2015 season to now, the team is still poised to have a very good year, if they play up to their potential.
While the offense is going to carry much of the load, the defense has to do its part too, and they did see improvements last season, measurably performing better in the crucial categories of sacks, turnovers, and points allowed, as well as red zone defense, where several of their turnovers came.
“I am nervously optimistic”, veteran safety Mike Mitchell had to say about his unit as he heads into his third season as the starting free safety for the team after signing a five-year contract in 2014. His own improvement from then to 2015 was a big part of the defense’s upward tick.
“I think we took the right steps”, he said, speaking of the unit’s offseason journey, adding that he thinks they are continuing to take the right steps. “That is a continual process. We are not anywhere near where we want to be, where we need to be, but we are taking the right steps”.
His most interesting remark is, I think, what followed, where he said, “we are ahead of where we were last year”. I do suppose that is true, particularly with the emergence of Stephon Tuitt and Ryan Shazier, and with inklings of the secondary finally beginning to solidify into a stable unit that will grow into a good one over time.
Mitchell talked about the fact that much of the core of this defense has been together for two or three years now. He himself, along with Shazier and Tuitt, are all entering their third seasons with the team, and the only players with lesser tenure expected to play are Javon Hargrave at nose tackle, Ross Cockrell at left cornerback, and whoever ends up as their nickel cornerback.
“We are communicating”, the veteran safety said, “and communicating the right things at the right time”. You might recall that the Steelers struggled with communication early last season, particularly in the opener against a disorienting Patriots offense.
“There are not as many busts in coverage or drops in our defense”, he went on. “Everyone is playing the same call. The right call. That is what you get when a group is familiar with each other”. And that is exactly the sort of dynamic that existed in the Steelers’ defense of the mid- to late-2000s, when they fielded the best defense of that era, a roster lathered with veterans.
Mitchell continued to stress the topic of communication, saying that it “is everything”, and that “the best defenses are defenses that are always talking…the best defenses are loud defenses. I think we are becoming that. There is not a thing that happens on the field that someone isn’t saying something to someone else”.