One of the struggles for any defensive player joining the Steelers' roster is the inevitable comparison made between their skills and those of the former great players who manned the same position. Perhaps not all of these former players were all-time NFL greats but, in fans' memories, they certainly are.
Ex-Panthers free safety Mike Mitchell came to the Steelers via free agency in 2014, looking to fill the role of long-time, deep center-field safety Ryan Clark. No one will ever accuse Clark of being the most athletic player on the field, but he was heady, he had a great feel for the defense and, in his prime, was as ferocious a hitter as any other in the NFL.
Mitchell, on the other hand, was used more like how the Steelers use strong safety Troy Polamalu. He roamed around the box, he blitzed, he played at the line of scrimmage. But for all of the pre-snap gyrations Polamalu employs, and all the short-yardage line-dives Polamalu is known for, Mitchell is far away from him now. In fact, their lockers probably are closer to each other than where they start the play.
Mitchell's job is to be a pure deep safety. While that hasn't yielded great statistical results, his impact is beginning to be felt more frequently.
Mitchell jarred loose two would-be completions against Cleveland in Week 6 and forced a fumble - just the Browns' second turnover of the season to that point. He stripped Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins of a catch in the second half of the Steelers' win over Houston in Week 7, a critical turnover at a key point in the game. As infrequently as Mitchell appeared on camera during the first quarter of the season, it was more about the limitations of TV camera angles than his ability to make plays. His job is to not let anything get behind him, and while the Steelers have blown coverage assignments on some deep passes this season, Mitchell still has been the team's most effective defensive back so far this season.
Mitchell has an acute awareness, if not a sense of bitterness, about the perceived lack of understanding by fans regarding his role and the high-profile safety partner with whom he plays.
"The biggest difference is when you're playing with a Hall of Fame safety here, that has done a great job doing a lot of things for a long time, who covers well, who plays great in the box, who is a great blitzer, you don't get to do them because he's the Hall of Famer," Mitchell said Thursday. "That can be frustrating at times, if that's what you like to do. I spend a lot more time in coverage here," Mitchell told Alan Robinson of the Tribune Review, speaking of the differences playing for the Steelers and the Panthers or Raiders, his previous two teams. "I'd be in the box, I'd be doing different things, whereas now I'm strictly in coverage."
It's understandable. Steelers fans hear "safety," they think "Troy Polamalu," and the things Polamalu does, as unorthodox as they are for the position, have become standard. Mitchell's role is important, but without the interceptions and sacks, there's the misconception of a lack of production.
His two forced-fumbles were both takeaways but both came on plays where the initial assignment was blown. Mitchell was there to clean it up, and he did that, and then some. Making plays doesn't need to come in the form of pile-dives. Either way, it appears Mitchell is content with his role.
"And this place is awesome. The coaches are awesome," he told Robinson. "The players are awesome. Even getting to play with Troy, my job is less fun, but way easier."