Behind The Steel Curtain managing editor Neal Coolong and analyst Steel34D went over game film of safety Mike Mitchell after the signing was announced, and shared a few emails about the good and the bad in his game.
NC: My first thought looking at him play is he's a student of Man Football. He plays the game hard, he's passionate. Just a bizarre story though. Not gonna lie, I remember the story about Oakland drafting him, then I forgot about him until I watched him in Carolina this year. What stands out for you when you've watched him in the past?
34D: The first thing that stands out to me when watching Mitchell on tape is his speed. The Panthers had one of the best fronts in the NFL in 2013 and because of this they asked Mitchell to play deep coverage a lot. He clearly has the athleticism to play in single high coverage 15-20 yards off of the line and yet still be able to cover sideline to sideline or come up to help with the run.
When he see the play he accelerates very, very quickly allowing him to either make a play on the football or make the tackle with little yards gained after the catch. What also stands out to me is that he is a safety who hasn't mastered the mental aspect of the game yet. He doesn't anticipate the play well which is likely due to lack of starting experience. Even when he does see the play, you can see him not trust what he sees. He hesitates, even for just a split second, on many plays on tape. His speed makes up for it in deep coverage but in coverage closer to the line *where the game is faster) it is the difference from him breaking up a pass or just simply making the tackle. This hesitation shows up on running plays as well.
NC: I agree completely with the hesitancy. To me, it looks more like that "I'm not totally sure if I should do this" kind of hesitation. I think the game slowed down for him quite bit as the season went on, too.
The Steelers have a long-standing tradition of smart safeties - Ryan Clark, Chris Hope, Brent Alexander (sort of)...all of these players were starters for several years at a time. What's interesting to me with Mitchell is his physical tape stands out. As odd as this sounds, he could be the most athletic Steelers free safety in three decades.
But without the smarts (i.e. reading angles in coverage, remaining disciplined), he may struggle. How much of an issue do you think his lack of anticipatory skills will have with this team early on, and can he overcome them?
34D: Now that is the important question isn't it? I agree that his hesitation might have been more about being unsure what he was allowed to do with in the scope of the defense as well as his role as the last line of defense. I think the lack of anticipation has a lot to do with his inexperience. Mitchell had not been a full time starter for the Raiders but after the second game with the Panthers he had earned the starting free safety spot.
After earning that spot he only began to look more and more comfortable as the season went on. I think the Steelers are going to use him very similarly to how the Panthers did as the deep safety where his athleticism will make up for this deficiency. The improvement he showed on tape in 2013 tells me he is a guy who can learn this anticipatory skill. I believe with the help of the coaching staff and a player like Troy Polamalu he can overcome this deficiency. I just don't expect it to happen until he becomes comfortable with the defense later on in the season.
NC: What does this mean for the Steelers defense? They tried a few times in the past to use single-high coverage, and it didn't work, to put it mildly. Some of Ike Taylor's worst games came as part of a single high plan. Do you think they're done looking at cornerbacks in free agency?
34D: I think part of the struggles the Steelers have had with the single-high coverage had a lot to do with Ryan Clark not having the speed to play sideline to sideline. With Mitchell that is no longer an issue. The single-high look isn't the only way the Steelers can play Mitchell as the deep safety. They can also run the cover 3 which will give the corners less of a responsibility. Paper Champions did a good job breaking down the evolution of cover 3 and how the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks run it. I think Mitchell has similar athleticism to Earl Thomas and he can be the extra over the top help. I think the Steelers are still very thin at the cornerback position. However they have other needs on the defense as well. Any player they pick would likely have to be a lower priced free agent otherwise the depth is going to come from the draft.