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Pittsburgh Steelers: Panthers Defense Inflated Mike Mitchell’s Free Agent Value

It’s homecoming weekend for new Pittsburgh Steelers safety Mike Mitchell.

Mitchell goes up against his old team when the Steelers play the Carolina Panthers Sunday night at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Panthers wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery will have a chance to catch up with his former teammates. Carolina signed him as a free agent during the offseason.

It might look like the Steelers and Panthers made a trade, but they just happened to sign each other’s free agents.

If it were an actual trade, it’s worked out better for the Panthers so far.

Through two games, Cotchery has caught eight passes. Meanwhile, Mitchell’s stat sheet has been bare except for 12 tackles.

The Panthers defense was second only to the Seahawks last season. It helped them go 12-4 and make the playoffs for the first time since 2008. It also helped Mitchell look better than he really is.

Mitchell headlined an unusually active free-agent signing period for the Steelers. They wanted to get younger at free safety, so they brought in the 27-year-old Mitchell to replace Ryan Clark, who went to the Redskins and turns 35 in October.

The Steelers have forced 55 turnovers over the past three seasons, the fewest in the NFL. They were hoping Mitchell could bring the defensive tenacity that can induce takeaways. He intercepted four passes for the Panthers last season. No Steeler has intercepted four passes since Troy Polamalu picked off seven in 2010. Mitchell added 3.5 sacks, eight passes defended and two forced fumbles.

That translated into a big payday for Mitchell. The Steelers signed him to a five-year, $25 million contract. But it’s starting to look like Mitchell was a one-year wonder in 2013.

Mitchell has sacked no one, broken up no passes and forced no fumbles through two games with the Steelers. And just like last season the Steelers have no takeaways in the first two games.

A second-round draft pick out of Ohio University by the Raiders in 2009, Mitchell started a total of seven games in four seasons with two interceptions, 10 passes defended and one forced fumble.

Perhaps Mitchell is better suited as a role player. In his first season as a full-time starter he played behind a front seven that accounted for 48 of the Panthers’ 60 sacks and included NFL Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly.

Among safeties who took at least 25 percent of their team’s snaps last season, Mitchell was 64th with 45 tackles according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Ryan Clark was 16th with 75 tackles.

This suggests Mitchell didn’t have to do as much tackling because the Panthers’ front seven did more of the work. Clark, on the other hand, was busier because he backed a weaker defense.

Mitchell would have had more tackles, but he missed 18. James Ihedigbo of the Baltimore Ravens was the only other safety who missed that many tackles. Mitchell has missed only one tackle this season, but PFF gives him an overall ranking of 63rd out of 71 safeties.

While the Steelers have allowed 174 rushing yards per game mostly against backup running backs, Mitchell has been virtually invisible. The only time Mitchell has been noticed is when he’s committing a costly penalty. He was flagged for unnecessary roughness and grabbing a facemask during Ravens scoring drives late in the third quarter at Baltimore.

The league didn’t fine Mitchell for the hit on Ravens receiver Steve Smith that drew the penalty, which suggests that it actually was legal according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Still, Mitchell needs to play with more discipline. His two penalties are tied for second in the league among safeties. The only safety with three penalties is (who else?) Bernard Pollard of the Titans.

The Steelers made a seamless transition at free safety when they signed Clark to replace Chris Hope after the 2005 season. Hope paired with Polamalu to help the Steelers rank first in yards allowed in 2004, when they went 15-1, and fourth in yards allowed during their championship season in 2005.

Unlike Clark, Mitchell won’t be playing alongside Polamalu for eight years. Polamalu, 33, is nearing the end of his career and the Steelers have little depth at safety. Shamarko Thomas, Robert Golden and Will Allen haven’t played a snap on defense this season.

If it turns out that Mitchell needs an elite group of defensive linemen and linebackers in front of him to be effective as a starter, the Steelers have wasted their money.

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1 comment

  1. charles maftin

    Another possible anology is Mitchell complements front seven. Because our front 7 is either no good or not being put in a position to make plays ie old, tired schematics, it may not be correct to blame Mitchell. But then again bad angles, missed tackles are a reason to blame Mitchell. So far distinct plays to cast blame say long bombs or deep slants have not yet happened.

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