Are Mike Mitchell’s “Growing Pains” a Cause for Concern?

Jerome Bettis rushing debt with the Pittsburgh Steelers amounted to all of 57 yards. In all fairness to Bettis, the should be Hall of Famer:

  • His average was good and the Steelers spent the day playing from behind…
  • AND the Jim Miller experiment as a starter had last all of 2 quarters…
  • AND Greg Lloyd had just been lost for the season…
  • AND injuries to the linebacking corps were so severe that coaches were talking 4-3 for week 2.

To understand the last factoid in its full context, consider that the Steelers had kept 10 linebackers on their opening day roster. Suffice to say, by the chaos generated during one awful afternoon in Jacksonville certainly muted any cries of “Bettis is a bust.”

This entire preamble is necessary to establish that 3 preseason is woefully insufficient to make any sweeping pronouncements on the success or failure of a free agent.

  • But with that said, Michael Mitchell’s play does warrant a few caution flags.

The Steelers 2014 off season free agent signing spree notwithstanding, Pittsburgh has always been a quality not quantity free agent player. They don’t make many moves often, but when they do, they do it with a bang. Think Kevin Greene. Think John L. Williams. Think Will Wolford. Think Wayne Gandy (NOT!) Think Kimo von Oelhoffen. Think the man Mitchell replaces, Ryan Clark.

So when Kevin Colbert broke character and made a day one, big money free agency signing with Mike Mitchell, fans can be forgiven for assuming an automatic upgrade was in place.

  • And Mitchell may prove to be an upgrade.

Except that one of the first plays yours truly observed in the Steelers preseason loss to the Eagles was Mike Mitchell making a sloppy effort and missing a tackle (to be fair, he wasn’t the only one.) And the numbers show that in preseason the Steelers run defense is even worse than it was in 2013.

  • Of course you don’t normally point fingers at the safeties when run defense falters.

They are, as the position title suggests, the last line of defense. But the Steelers have given up long runs in bunches, and a big part of a free safety’s responsibility is to prevent that. How did that work out vs. Philadelphia?

  • The Eagles have five running backs make at least one run of 15 yards or longer.

Transparency demands that I confess that the second half of the Steelers-Eagles preseason game is the only preseason action I’ve observed. But others have picked up on Mitchell’s struggles. ESPN’s Scott Brown observed that Mitchell has been “shaky.”

Ralph Paulk of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review quoted fellow safety Will Allen Mitchell as going through as “growing pains” in the 4-3 to 3-4 transition. Mitchell denied that he and Troy Polamalu were having difficulty getting on the same page.

Although Paulk says that Mitchell has delivered a “mix bag of good, bad and indifference,” Mitchell attitude is in the right place. Discussing his play vs. Philadelphia, he offered:

It’s a bitter taste in your mouth because you don’t want to play like that. It was a great learning experience for us. You don’t learn a lot about yourself when you win, but you learn a lot when you lose.

That’s exactly what we need to hear from Mitchell. While Ryan Clark made news for the headlines he made off the field, the truth is that he was the Steelers most consistent defender from 2010 to 2012, and his slowing a step hurt the defense immensely in 2013.

It is unfair to expect him to do everything Clark did, but Mike Mitchell is one free agent acquisition the Steelers need to work out.

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