It is sometimes hard to reckon Pittsburgh Steelers safety Mike Mitchell as part of the old guard of the defense. While he is entering his ninth season in the NFL, he is entering his fourth with the Steelers. That’s still more than—or the same as seven of the other 11 starters on defense, if you include both nose tackle and slot cornerback.
The only starters who have been with the Steelers longer are Cameron Heyward, James Harrison, Vince Williams, and William Gay. Everybody else has either come in with or after Mitchell, and that applies especially to the secondary, a fact that is by no means lost on the veteran safety.
“This is the first year since I’ve been here that I look to my left, I look at the guy to my right, and I look at the guys in front of me and those face are familiar faces”, Mitchell said recently during an interview with SiriusXM, conducted during the team’s night practice.
The only change from the starting lineup on defense at the end of last season comes with Williams taking over for Lawrence Timmons as the buck linebacker. The rest of the defense represents much-desired continuity for the free safety.
“I think we’re really only replacing one true starter, and that’s Vince Williams for Lawrence Timmons”, Mitchell said, “but Vince played a lot of good football for us last year so he’s not a guy that I’m unfamiliar with”. The fifth-year inside linebacker made a couple of starts last season.
But I don’t think he’s fooling anybody. What he’s really talking about more than anything is the long-sought continuity of the back end, because he has dealt with nothing but turnover, rather than turnovers, during his first three years.
Mitchell was originally brought in to replace Ryan Clark, pairing with Troy Polamalu in 2014. Polamalu was swapped out for Will Allen in 2015, and then Robert Golden at the start of 2016, but by the end of last season, it was Sean Davis, the rookie second-round draft pick, entering a starting position the Steelers hope he will hold on to for years.
Why exactly is continuity so important, especially in the secondary? For one simple reason: communication. And Mitchell is seeing the different. “I feel very good about our group”, he said. “I feel very good about our communication thus far in camp, but obviously we still have plenty of work to do. But I like where we’re headed”.
The 30-year-old is currently sidelined with an injury, which he said that he hopes to return from by the Steelers’ tune-up game in a couple of weeks, because there is no rush for him to get back.
Mitchell has been taking his mental reps, running behind Golden for every scrimmage snap and seeing the defense, mentally making the calls in order to stay engaged. And when he is not doing that, he is coaching up his young teammates.