As Pittsburgh Steelers training camp is set to begin, Behind the Steel Curtain takes a look at each position battle and how players at those positions are expected to perform.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers secondary improved immediately when Mike Mitchell was signed in free agency this year. The move considerably upgraded the free safety position and also strengthened strong safety, where Troy Polamalu has roamed the past decade.
Mitchell has the size and athleticism to be an upgrade at Ryan Clark's old spot, because he hits just as hard as Clark used to when he could get close enough to a receiver. But he also makes plays, specifically, interceptions, which have eluded the Steelers secondary.
Not only did Mitchell have four interceptions for the Carolina Panthers last season, but he also tallied 3.5 sacks, eight pass breakups and two forced fumbles. This numbers would have been tops for the Steelers secondary last year, and in just his sixth NFL season Mitchell still has room for improvement.
Polamalu's play should improve as well, as he shouldn't be worked as hard as last season when he had to move down into a linebacking spot about half the time he was on the field. Polamalu has a lot of wear and tear on his body with the way he plays, and at 5-foot-10 and 207 pounds (maybe 10 pounds less) the beating he took at linebacker would have cut his career considerably short. Now, with Mitchell and a faster linebacking corps, Polamalu can do what he does best, creating havoc along the line or covering wideouts.
Veteran Will Allen was added last season to shore up the secondary, and he should be a key backup and special teams performer again this year. However, second-year player Shamarko Thomas, third-year pro Robert Golden and first-year player Jordan Dangerfield also will try to crack the depth chart. Allen is in his 12th NFL season and hasn't appeared to slow down. He had an interception, a pass breakup and forced fumble for the Steelers last season, but his primary work has been done on special teams.
After suffering through a couple injuries that hampered his development and playing time as a rookie in 2013, Thomas is hopeful that he can push Mitchell for playing time at free safety. He also learned strong safety last year and could spell Polamalu as well if needed. He played in 14 games with two starts last season, but didn't make much of an impact.
Golden has played 31 games for the Steelers during the previous two seasons, but had just one forced fumble last year for his biggest play. Unfortunately for Golden, he might be better known for getting trucked by Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler during an early loss last season. Sure, Cutler went down on the play, too, so Golden got a solo tackle on the play. But Cutler plowed him first, and that was the most notable part of that play.
Dangerfield also spent some time with the Buffalo Bills, but he has not yet played in an NFL game.