It was going to happen. We all knew it. Every time the Steelers took the field on defense in 2014, there was a palpable sense (at least in the places where I was watching the games) that Mike Mitchell was going to do something to hurt his team’s chances to win. It became a certainty along the lines of water being wet, the sky being blue and Jerome Bettis hailing from Detroit.
A lot of Steeler fans would say that Cortez Allen needs to have the bounce-back year of all bounce-back years in 2015, but he’ll be standing in line behind Mitchell for that honor come training camp in July. Piling criticism on both Allen and Mitchell for their play this season was easy – and justified, much of the time – thanks to big-money contracts and big-time gaffes at key moments.
Allen’s promise as a potential shutdown corner took a significant hit this season. With the hope resting on his shoulders that he would flourish in a starting role, Allen instead looked lost a lot of the time. He did pick off two passes before he was benched, but his time on the field was spent being a step (or more) behind in coverage. When he did get to a ball carrier, he had a tendency to reach and try to get them to the ground with just his arms. But Allen’s role was diminished when his play warranted it. Mitchell stayed on the field and collected 15-yard penalties like a squirrel gathering nuts for winter.
Mitchell finished 2014 second on the team with 71 total tackles, but his first year with the Steelers will be remembered more for the plays he didn’t make – not to mention the groin injury that he didn’t disclose (or did disclose and was allowed to play through to the detriment of the team). The injury can be to blame for Mitchell being out of position in his coverage responsibilities, but it has nothing to do with the chest-pounding celebrations that accompanied run-of-the-mill tackles or a penchant for going high with hits on receivers over the middle or trying to lay out a running back on the sideline after a play was over.
Sure, some of Mitchell’s struggles can be attributed to adjusting to a new team, playing in a defensive system that’s historically been tough for free agents and rookies to pick up in year one. But Mitchell is a professional who’s being paid a lot of money to make plays in the defensive backfield. Until he is more familiar with the scheme – and healthy enough to execute it effectively – Mitchell’s job is simple. Don’t hurt the team. Support the front seven in run defense. Stay deeper than the deepest receiver in pass coverage. If he’s able to accomplish this in 2015 and beyond, the good things Mitchell does on the field could be added to the list of certainties I rattled off at the top of this piece.
Water is wet. The sky is blue. Jerome Bettis is from Detroit. And Mike Mitchell makes plays.
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