Though Mike Mitchell hasn't made much of a positive impact on the Steelers' defense just yet, we've already seen the impact he had on his former teammate, Steve Smith, in the third quarter of last Thursday night's game against the Ravens. Mitchell caught the attention of the game's referees and other former teammates of his when he cracked Smith who had just made a catch across the middle of the field near the goal line.
Mitchell was penalized 15 yards on the play and likely will receive a fine from the NFL.
Upon reviewing the hit, Greg Olsen, tight end of the Carolina Panthers and 2013 teammate of Mitchell, said he recognized the same style of play Mitchell brought to the Panthers' defense in last season, when he forced two fumbles, recorded 3.5 sacks and four interceptions.
"That's him," Olsen said, according to Charlotte Observer reporter Joseph Person, when asked about Mitchell's hit on Smith last week. "He's an aggressive player. I don't think he's a dirty player. I think he's a good, hard-nosed, physical safety. Kind of toes that line, but he makes his presence felt and that's what makes him a good player. He's a really talented guy. You've got to know where he's at. He was a big part of our defense last year. Unfortunately he moved on and found himself in a place that kind of fits his mold."
Mitchell's departure from Carolina last season strengthened his relationship with former teammate, Steve Smith, who also departed from the team and wound up in the AFC North through free agency.
"Steve's a good dude. Me and him got close once the season was over and we were both in free agency. We exchanged a lot of text messages," Mitchell said during a 20-minute phone interview. "I wasn't trying to hit Steve in the head. As a competitor, we had texted during the week, just chopped it up for a little bit. ... I thought it was a clean hit. Obviously, the referees didn't see it that way."
Though the camaraderie, which Mitchell suggests they have because of their similar situations, has been challenged by Chicago Bears' cornerback, D.J. Moore, who provided his own insight into their relationship.
I practice with Mike Mitchell and Steve Smith. They are in no way shape or form fans of each other.— D.J. moore (@DJMoore30) September 12, 2014
Despite this, Mitchell insists the two respect one another and that the hit didn't change anything after the game. Mitchell's description about what happened after the game was that he and Smith hugged, didn't mention the hit and said they'd see each other again when the Ravens play the Steelers again in November.
As the Steelers prepare to play the Panthers, obvious questions are going to be asked as to how Mitchell feels about his departure from Carolina. Although nothing suggests Mitchell had any disdain toward the Panthers for not trying harder to keep him on the team, you can tell Mitchell was disappointed that he wasn't a priority for them.
"In my heart I thought I'd done enough to deserve the contract I was looking for," he said. "And I definitely thought they were going to be the one to give it to me."
Mitchell has yet to produce a turnover for the Pittsburgh Steelers either in the preseason or his first two regular-season games. He has, in fact, looked to be playing sub-par in a defense still struggling to produce its first turnover going into Week 3. Much of what has been seen from Mitchell has been his ability to hit opposing players after they've already gained a first down. Though some of his hits have been hard, as per his reputation, they haven't had the impact either he or the Steelers are looking for. But Mitchell is working to change that, targeting ball-carriers differently and trying to make a play while still hitting with intensity.
"I'm still going to try to make it a forceful impact," he said. "The target is lower, but I still want you to feel it. Really, I want the football. As I'm getting older, I'm kind of over hitting a guy real hard and they keep possession of the ball. I want to get the football out."
The Steelers may need Mitchell to get the football out from a member of his former team if they hope to win Sunday night. Mitchell's play hasn't lived up to the five-year contract he signed in the 2014 off-season to join the Steelers; but it's still very early. No one on the Steelers' defense has looked spectacular thus far in the season, and history shows that even seasoned veterans need time to adjust to the Steelers' defense under Dick LeBeau.
Take for example former safety Ryan Clark, who replaced Chris Hope in the 2006 season, the year following a Steelers' Super Bowl victory. Hope had developed a hard-hitting reputation for the Steelers and fit well into their system as a free safety. Clark joined the team after being with the Washington Redskins for two seasons and didn't produce immediately.
It took until Week 5 of his first season in Pittsburgh to record his first interception, and he failed to record any in the following season of 2007-2008. Clark took his time, though, to become a fixture in a Steelers' defensive scheme that bolstered its legend during the 2008-2009 Super Bowl season in which he defensed 6 passes, recorded an interception, destroyed the Patriots' Wes Welker, and delivered the finishing blow against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game when he knocked out Willis McGahee and forced a fumble.
Even former Steelers' middle linebacker, James Farrior, needed time to adjust to playing in Pittsburgh. He failed to record a single turnover in 2002 and made only 60 tackles (he recorded over 100 for the New York Jets in the season prior) in a defense that struggled to dominate until Dick LeBeau returned as defensive coordinator in 2004.
Relating this to Mitchell's current standing on the team, it may be frustrating to see him miss tackles and not make significant plays thus far, but it should be expected that the sixth-year player will need some time to find his role on the team and begin to feel comfortable. Mitchell does seem to have the ability to make big hits, much like the previous two starting free safeties for this team, Chris Hope and Ryan Clark. It may just take time for him to develop fully and for his abilities to manifest in this defense.
Maybe we'll see Mitchell play better because of some extra motivation playing the team that didn't re-sign him last season, but even if we don't, you might want to refrain from judging him a bad front-office decision at this early stage. Had that same front office decided to abandon their decision to stick with either Clark or Farrior while they adapted to the Steelers' defense, Pittsburgh might not have won their two most-recent Super Bowls.