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Steelers Film Room: Mike Mitchell was no turkey on Thanksgiving Day

Mike Mitchell had himself a fine day on Thanksgiving. Just how good? The film doesn’t lie.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

A few days ago, I made the bold proclamation that Mike Mitchell had himself not just a great game on Thursday against the Colts, but what may have been his finest game as a Steeler.

It’s high praise for a guy who has gotten -- and earned — a great deal of bad press since replacing former Steeler Ryan Clark at free safety several years ago. Some guys get an undeserved bad rap; Mitchell has, more often than not, deserved the criticism.

However, for one night, at least, he showed Clark’s prowess and at least a sliver of former Steeler Troy Polamalu’s instincts. So much, in fact, that it was worth another look.

2nd Quarter, 1:12 remaining, 4th & 1

An area where Mitchell has earned most of the criticism he has garnered is in taking too many unnecessary roughness penalties. Sometimes, though, the jarring hit is necessary. This is one of those times.

As Indianapolis quarterback Scott Tolzien drops back to throw, Mitchell eyes him the entire time. He doesn’t get a great break on the ball as Tolzien throws — he’s actually pretty late. In this situation in games past, Mitchell would often lay down a vicious hit, and many of those hits crossed the line from brutal to illegal. This time, however, the hit was delivered perfectly, and did exactly what it was supposed to do, causing the receiver to lose contact with the ball and drop it, ending the Colts’ drive with zero points.

Interestingly, he laid down a similar hit a few plays earlier on a deep strike to T.Y. Hilton. Unfortunately, that one gained 32 yards. Mitchell knocked the ball loose, but Hilton landed in just such a way as to allow him to recover. That hit, though, would eventually take Hilton out of the game. These were the last two passes over the middle anywhere near Mitchell.

4th Quarter, 14:16 remaining, 3rd & 1

The Steelers had two goal-line stands on Thursday night that resulted in a combined zero points scored, and Mitchell made key plays on both of them.

Another major knock on Mitchell is his inability to execute a proper form tackle. It’s one of the reasons he goes for the big hit so often, but on this play, his effort was nearly textbook quality.

One area where he does not often get the credit for which he is due is in his ability to read and react quickly. He’s a savvy veteran with plenty of experience, so it’s not really a surprise, but on this play, he recognizes the quarterback scramble so quickly that they look almost simultaneous. He quickly gets into position, sets his feet and breaks down for the tackle. Doing this eliminates the single greatest flaw in his game: taking bad angles in the open field. By setting his feet, he forces Tolzien to react first, which gives Mitchell a huge advantage. As he tackles, he drives through Tolzien. The only thing he could have done better was to wrap his arms around Tolzien during the tackle. Otherwise, this could be used as a training film.

4th Quarter, 8:09 Remaining, 1st & 10

At a time when the Steelers have been lacking in splash plays, Mitchell did a cannonball in the kiddie pool.

While the defense had been holding its own, the offense had bogged down after a strong start. The Colts had started to put together a drive, and took a shot deep. Just before actually throwing the ball, Tolzien pump-fakes to a receiver underneath. Had Mitchell bitten on the pump fake — not all that unlikely when a defense is playing as aggressively as the Steelers were on Thursday night — T.Y. Hilton would have been one-on-one with Ross Cockrell — and he had him beat, too. However, Mitchell stayed true to his assignment and broke on the ball as soon as it was thrown. He timed it perfectly and cut off Hilton for the interception. I couldn’t help but think a bit of Troy Polamalu as I watched him on the return, too, using excellent vision to navigate traffic and breaking four tackles along the way. He was one good move from breaking it for a 90-yard touchdown return.

As I said a few days ago, this performance doesn’t in any way negate three seasons of up-and-down play by Mitchell, but it does give a glimpse of what he’s capable of. It also shows what he can do when the pass rush is on point and the opposing quarterback doesn’t have much time to pick apart the defense. It’s no shock that his best season so far in Pittsburgh was 2015, when the Steelers were third in the NFL with 48 sacks.