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Morgan Burnett will try to restore Steelers’ tradition at safety

The torch has been passed to Morgan Burnett.

What torch is this, exactly?

It’s a torch that was first carried by Ryan Clark, who the Steelers signed in 2006. In eight years with the Steelers, Clark helped them win Super Bowl XLIII and reach Super Bowl XLV.

When the Steelers moved on from Clark in 2014, the torch was passed to Mike Mitchell. The torch wasn’t carried quite as well during Mitchell’s four seasons with the team. Mitchell dropped it a few times and occasionally burned both himself and the Steelers.

Now, Burnett takes the torch and assumes the role of the free agent safety who comes to the Steelers in mid-career and hopefully helps bring home a championship.

The Steelers signed Burnett to a three-year contract Tuesday, according to the team’s website.

This situation isn’t exactly like that of Clark in 2006 and Mitchell in 2014. Both Clark and Mitchell were coming off breakout seasons. Clark made a name for himself with the Steelers. Mitchell did too, but more on social media than on the field.

Burnett, on the other hand, already is an established safety in the NFL. The Steelers don’t usually make a splash in free agency, but there is something splashy about this move.

Since the Packers drafted him in the third round in 2010, Burnett has nine career interceptions, 46 pass breakups, eight forced fumbles and 7.5 sacks.

According to Pro Football Focus, Burnett missed just two tackles last season and was the most efficient tackler among safeties with at least 200 snaps.

The Steelers allowed 4.4 yards per carry last season, tied for fifth-worst in the league. Burnett should provide some much-needed help in that area as long as he can stay healthy.

And that’s the buyer-beware part of this deal.

Clark and Mitchell both were 26 at the time that they signed with the Steelers. Burnett is 29, and with that added mileage comes an injury history.

Burnett hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2012. He missed four games with hamstring and groin injuries last season. His three passes defended were his lowest total since his rookie season.

Inside linebacker Jon Bostic, the Steelers’ other free-agent addition, also has been in and out of the trainer’s room. He missed the entire 2016 season with the Lions after breaking his foot and played 14 games for the Colts last season before missing the last two games with a knee injury.

The Steelers have to accept some injury risk because with Le’Veon Bell‘s $14.5 million franchise-tag cost taking up so much salary cap room, they’re working on a budget in the free agent market. They’ve stretched those dollars to try to fill their two biggest holes on defense.

Like Clark in 2006 and Mitchell in 2014, Bostic is at that ripe age of 26. He’s at the point at which he could make himself a household name if he helps the Steelers’ defense improve. He can do that without doing everything that Ryan Shazier did, and he expressed to the Pittsburgh media that he knows he could never really replace Shazier.

Sounds like a guy who won’t rile up playoff opponents with bold statements on social media.

The same can’t be said for Mitchell, who was released last week. He didn’t intercept a pass last season and broke up just two. He had four interceptions in his four years with the Steelers. He had that many in 2013 for the Panthers. After making 7.5 sacks in the first five years of his career, Mitchell had no regular-season sacks and one postseason sack as a Steeler.

Unlike Bostic, Burnett won’t have to show any such deference to the man who played the position before him. He can replace Mitchell, but should aim higher than that.

At his age, the Steelers can’t expect to get eight years out of Burnett like they got from Clark. But the Steelers aren’t looking to win a championship in eight years. They’re looking to win at least one more in however many years Ben Roethlisberger has left in his career.

Burnett is coming from another franchise where anything short of a championship is a disappointment.

That disappointment was especially sharp in 2014. In the NFC championship game at Seattle, Burnett had two sacks, recovered a fumble and made an interception with five minutes left that would have sealed the win if it weren’t for Mike McCarthy’s conservative play-calling.

The Packers went three-and-out on the possession that Burnett provided them, and the Seahawks came back from a 19-7 deficit and won 28-22 in overtime.

Both Burnett and the Steelers have experienced their share of playoff heartache, and together they can try to take care of some unfinished business.

 Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets

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