The Pittsburgh Steelers for the first time in the past four years fielded a defense that did not feature veteran Mike Mitchell starting at free safety. For years, he managed to tough out injuries, including playing through multiple tears in his groin and injuries to his shoulder, making every start through his first three years in Pittsburgh.
That changed on Sunday when he sat out a big game against the Ravens with a bothersome hamstring injury, the newly-acquired J.J. Wilcox starting in his place—and frankly not doing all that great of a job, despite the fact that the Ravens’ offense did not do very much. He missed a tackle on their longest play of the day, a 50-yard run.
Two things that had up to this point been almost universally true about Mitchell’s tenure with the Steelers is that he was going to get banged up, and that he was going to play through it. Only one of the two happened this week, but we will have to see about next week.
He did finish off last week in practice as a limited participant, but he left the locker room before the reporters arrived, which was perhaps a foreshadowing of the fact that he would not be ready to go.
The hamstring injury is one that has bothered him for two months now, originally suffering it in the early days of training camp. He missed the rest of the game, and the entirety of the preseason, only resuming practice on the week leading up to the season opener.
Now, there are certainly many Steelers fans who have been ready to run Mitchell out of town for years already, but they rush to judgement—or rather to action—without a sufficient backup plan. To date, I do not believe that Wilcox has done anything that merits the suggestion that he is deserving of starting.
Of course, he has only been with the team for about a month or so, and really, the fact that they already trusted him to start in the fourth game of the season should be seen as an indication of how high of an opinion they have of him—or, alternatively, how low they have gotten on Robert Golden.
Still, despite what many might say, the defense will be at its best when they have a healthy Mitchell in the lineup. The problem is that I don’t know when that might be. He sat out a month resting the hamstring during the preseason already, but they were still limiting his snaps.
Now he has missed a game as it has worsened again. He has a strong tolerance for pain and the willingness to play through it, but he has also wizened over the years and come to realize that sometimes it’s best to fully heal. I will be very interested in monitoring his practice participation this week.