By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH -- With Lawrence Timmons, Cameron Heyward and Mike Mitchell spread throughout their defense, the Pittsburgh Steelers still have a veteran presence despite an overhaul to the unit that began after the 2011 season when inside linebacker James Farrior was not re-signed.
While Timmons and Heyward played at Pro Bowl levels last season, Mitchell largely was a disappointment and certainly did not reach the five-year, $25 million free-agent contract he signed earlier in the year. And during the season, he looked nothing like the fast, athletic, playmaking safety that roamed from sideline to sideline with ease during spring OTAs and mini-camp.
"As a competitor, you just try to come out and play and put it on the line for your team, especially for this team,'' Mitchell said. "I really feel that this is one of the few organizations that I really feel like is a family, so you'll do whatever you can do for your brothers. And I wasn't the only guy who played hurt. We had a lot of guys playing hurt, so I just wanted to do my part.''
Mitchell suffered a groin injury prior to training camp and was on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list for 10 days at the beginning of camp. He returned for the preseason and did not miss any time then and throughout the regular season. However, he clearly was not healthy and needed surgery to repair damage to both groins during the offseason.
"I was out there practicing (all week), and I feel fine,'' Mitchell said. "It still gets a little sore, but that's normal.''
Despite not playing at full capacity from the outset, Mitchell was second on the Steelers with 71 total tackles, including 53 solo stops and two forced fumbles while playing nearly 99 percent of the defensive snaps. However, he did not record a sack or an interception after collecting four each for Carolina in 2013.
"With Troy and Mike, we had two very athletic and active safeties last season,'' third-year player Shamarko Thomas said. "I've learned a lot from Troy, Will Allen and Mike, our three veteran safeties, so I hope to fit right in this year. I'm working hard with Mike and Will to make that happen.''
Thomas is expected to start alongside Mitchell this fall with Allen as the next safety off the bench. Mitchell could move to strong safety, where Polamalu played, while Thomas would take the deep coverage. Truthfully, though, the free and strong safety positions are virtually interchangeable for the Steelers.
Mitchell remained deep in coverage for defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau last fall, in an attempt to duplicate the takeaways that the Steelers sorely needed, but he was nowhere near the playmaker the club envisioned. That could change this season for new D-coordinator Keith Butler.
"I think the big things for me are to be healthy and it being my second year in this defense,'' Mitchell said. "I'm not going to say for one second that Coach LeBeau didn't let me make plays, because I'm always going to do whatever they ask me to do to the best of my abilities. ... Sure, I would like to blitz more, but we had a Hall of Famer blitzing last year.''
Mitchell believed the defense already is communicating better now than it did early in last season, so that could be critical to the club's development.
"We didn't get some of these things down until Week 12 of last year, so that's a good thing this year,'' Mitchell said.
With many new players and unproven talent, the Steelers defense could use all the help it can get this season.
Notes: The Steelers have three OTA practices scheduled for Tuesday through Thursday next week and for the following week June 8-11, while mandatory mini-camp is June 16-18. Training camp is allowed to begin no earlier than 15 days prior to the opening preseason game, the Hall-of-Fame game Aug. 9. That would be Saturday, July 25, at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe.