Free safety Mike Mitchell wouldn't use a torn groin as an excuse for his poor play during his first season with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"I hate that this is even a story," Mitchell told ESPN Writer Scott Brown back in January. "We all play hurt. Everyone on the team has injuries so I'm no different than any other player."
Injuries are a part of the game. At least that's what Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin will tell you. Tomlin isn't in the business of making excuses. Not for himself, and certainly not for his players; and that's a good thing, because the players have inherited that same mentality.
Mitchell had surgery to repair his groin in the offseason, and it was revealed he'd suffered tears in multiple places. He arrived at training camp with the injury last year, but elected to play through it rather than have surgery so he wouldn't miss any games.
"It would be like having the brakes on your car not be right," Mitchell said. "I'm not making excuses. I'm not apologizing for anything. One thing we don't do here in Pittsburgh is we don't seek comfort. Everyone plays hurt."
Mitchell caught the Steelers attention while starting in 14 of 15 games and intercepting four passes with the Carolina Panthers in 2013. With Troy Polamalu nearing the end of his career, Pittsburgh made its move in March of 2014, signing the free agent to a five-year, $25 million contract.
Steelers fans had high hopes for Mitchell after watching him set single-season career highs in tackles (74), sacks (3.5), interceptions (4) and forced fumbles (2) with the Panthers. Those high hopes were quickly replaced by frustration and confusion, as the new acquisition failed to make a big impact on a struggling defense.
Mitchell rarely discussed the injury, and downplayed it in an interview with Steelers.com at last year's training camp. The severity of the tear wasn't revealed until after the team's Wild-Card Playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
There's no question the injury affected Mitchell's play, particularly in pass coverage. This season, he's finally healthy, and has already intercepted three passes after failing to record an interception in his first season with the Steelers. Through ten games, he's racked up 48 tackles, three interceptions, two forced fumbles, seven pass break ups and a fumble recovery.
Mitchell's coverage skills were on display, particularly in the red zone, in Pittsburgh's 30-9 win over the Cleveland Browns in Week 10. What I like most about Mitchell is his versatility. He's a monster playing in the box against the run, and he's just as effective against the pass.
Watch Mitchell play center field in a classic Cover-3 look in the above play. He reads Johnny Manziel's eyes the entire way, and doesn't bite on the pump fake to the running back in the flat. Showing excellent discipline, he maintains his zone coverage responsibility in the middle third of the field, and is able to make a play on the ball to break up the pass in the end zone.
It's very important to be disciplined when playing in coverage against a quarterback like Manziel, who is able improvise and extend plays with his legs. Manziel loves rolling to his right, and he did so yet again in this second play.
Mitchell is responsible for the tight end, and stays glued to his man. The pass is intended for slot receiver Andrew Hawkins, but the Steelers safety is in the vicinity, and he jumps the route to make the interception.
Many have compared Mitchell to former Steelers safety Ryan Clark. It's a reasonable comparison in the sense that they are both hard hitters and play with a high level of intensity. But at six feet, 210 pounds (I think he's closer to 220), Mitchell is significantly bigger than Clark. That size, and tremendous speed (4.4 40-yard dash) allows Mitchell to match up with modern NFL tight ends in zone and man coverage.
Watch him pick up Browns tight end Gary Barnidge in the above play. He uses his length to maintain tight coverage, and forces Manziel to try to fit the ball through a tiny window.
Mitchell is a violent player, and has delivered at least a dozen jarring hits this season. He nearly broke Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Marvin Jones in half in Week 8, and concussed Oakland Raiders running back Latavius Murray in Week 10.
Much has been made of Mitchell's on-the-field celebrations, and he's drawn a fair amount of criticism for it from Steelers fans and opposing players. Personally, I have no issue with his celebrations between the lines, as long as he continues making impact plays and helping the team win. Football is a violent game, and the game's most violent players tend to wear their emotions on their sleeve. It's just the nature of the beast.
Mitchell might be a trash-talker, but he does most of his talking on the field. and he's been backing it up with his play. Marvin Jones called him "fake tough" for celebrating the hard hit, and Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith put him on his "lifetime hit list."
Mitchell wasn't concerned.
"It is something that he tries to use to fuel himself," he told Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in response to Smith's comments. "It isn't even something I concern myself with. I didn't think of anything when I heard about it, and I don't think anything about it now. I am going to continue on and play football."
Mitchell has shown major improvement in his second season with the Steelers. Getting healthy and becoming more comfortable with the playbook has allowed the 28-year-old pro to thrive in Keith Butler’s defense.
He’s currently on pace to set career-highs in almost every major statistical category. More importantly, he’s been an intimidating force and fearless leader on the field. If he keeps it up, he could find himself playing the Pro Bowl in February.