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Mike Mitchell The Only Stable Presence In 4-Year Secondary Shuffling

I realize that this article is not going to go over particularly well at all with the vast majority of people here, and I want to start off by saying right off the bat that I thought it was the right decision to release Mike Mitchell, because I don’t think his salary justified the risk of counting on him as a full-time starter at age 31 with his injury history.

But if you think about it, he has been the only source of consistency in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ secondary over the course of the past four years. (consistently sucking, hur hur hur hur. Good one.) Really. Everything has completely changed around him since he has been here.

Mitchell was the Steelers’ starting free safety for 61 of the past 64 games over the span of the past four years. No other position in the secondary comes close to matching that sort of consistency in personnel, and you can be assured that the revolving doors around him had an effect on his own play.

While this might be in part offered as a marginal defense of Mitchell, the broader point that I want to make is that the Steelers’ secondary has been far too mercurial in recent years, and it’s high time that we start seeing some year-to-year stability and an opportunity to grow and build. Just take a look at the charts below and see what I mean.

Season LCB RCB NCB SS FS
2014 Cortez Allen Ike Taylor William Gay Troy Polamalu Mike Mitchell
2015 Antwon Blake William Gay Cortez Allen Will Allen Mike Mitchell
2016 Ross Cockrell William Gay Sean Davis Robert Golden Mike Mitchell
2017 Joe Haden Artie Burns Mike Hilton Sean Davis Mike Mitchell

These are the starting lineups from the beginning of each of the past four seasons. Only one position other than Mitchell’s at free safety was even consistent from one year to the next, that being William Gay as the starting right outside cornerback for the beginning of both the 2015 and 2016 seasons.

And even that’s not actually entirely true. He started in the base but moved to the slot when Cortez Allen came onto the field. In the above chart, I use nickel cornerback to mean the third cornerback who played in the nickel package, and not necessarily the slot defender.

Now, here is a separate chart showing how each of the above seasons ended with their starting lineup.

Season LCB RCB NCB SS FS
2014 Brice McCain William Gay Antwon Blake Troy Polamalu Mike Mitchell
2015 Ross Cockrell William Gay Brandon Boykin Will Allen Mike Mitchell
2016 Ross Cockrell Artie Burns William Gay Sean Davis Mike Mitchell
2017 Joe Haden Artie Burns Mike Hilton Sean Davis Mike Mitchell

There is not much consistency here either. Gay finished the 2014 and 2015 seasons in the starting lineup, while both Artie Burns and Sean Davis have been in the starting lineup for about a season and a half. Ross Cockrell also spent about a season and a half more or less starting, though he spent much of 2015 rotating with Antwon Blake. The only year in which the same lineup that opened the season also closed it was this past season, in 2017. And the other years aren’t really even close, with at least two changes.

Over the course of the next several days, I am going to dig deeper into each of the past four seasons and dissect how the secondary played out in terms of injuries, demotions, promotions, switching roles, etc. I hope you’ll join me as I peel back the onion of misery.

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