New Steelers safety jumps at chance to play in AFC North



New Steelers safety Mike Mitchell is a big fan of social media. He noted in his introductory news conference with reporters Thursday afternoon that his Twitter following grew by 10,000 since he announced his decision to sign a free-agent contract with the team.

Mitchell, then, is well-versed in the criticism he has received in the five years he has been in the NFL. When the Oakland Raiders drafted him in the second round out of Ohio University in 2009, he was labeled a “reach.” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper did not have him as one of his top 40 safeties. NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said the Raiders could have taken him five rounds later, in the final round of the draft.

Mitchell spoke about the adversity he faced in Oakland and how in his second season he was “supposed to be out of the league.”

Unimpressed with Mitchell’s play, Raiders coaches reportedly wanted to cut him in training camp in 2010, but owner Al Davis overruled them.

The critiques smoldered within Mitchell. When he finally got an opportunity to start last season in Carolina, he wore his emotions on his sleeve and delivered some big plays for the Panthers.

“I play with a very big chip on my shoulder,” Mitchell said. “Just because you went to LSU and I went to Ohio, you’re no better than me, and I look forward to proving that every Sunday.”

After the dysfunction in Oakland, Mitchell signed a one-year contract with Carolina in hopes of proving that he was a starting-caliber player. That one season with the NFC South champion Panthers — one in which he intercepted four passes and recorded four sacks — granted Mitchell the leverage to sign a better deal with the Steelers.

Mitchell helped the Panthers become a dominant defense. The Panthers were second only to Seattle in scoring and total defense in 2013.

Mitchell only had two interceptions in his first four seasons with the Raiders, but he developed into a ball hawk for the Panthers. He tied for the team lead in interceptions and also led the team with two forced fumbles.

“I just feel like I needed an opportunity in Carolina, and the rest is history,” Mitchell said. “Every year, I feel like I’m getting better, getting smarter. I’m taking care of my body better. Everything about my game is developing.”

The Steelers certainly can use some of Mitchell’s playmaking ability. They were 13th in the AFC in takeaways with 10 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries.

Mitchell grew up in Fort Thomas, Ky., a short distance from Cincinnati, and rooted for the Bengals as a child. He jumped at the opportunity to sign with the Steelers when his agent told him they were interested.

“Being a Bengal fan, when I was a kid, you’re afraid of [the Steelers],” Mitchell said. “I know what the franchise is about. The way they play football here fits my personality. It’s very hard-nosed. This division is very physical. There was just too much to pass up. I immediately identified them as a team I definitely wanted to go to.

“For them to want me, to bring me in and play for their franchise, I felt like I wanted it more than they did.”

Mitchell has met with defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau several times the past two days. He will be playing in a revamped defense that could have as many as four new starters next season.

In the past few days, the Steelers have released veterans Larry Foote and LaMarr Woodley and watched former starter Ziggy Hood and reserve Al Woods sign elsewhere.

One thing Mitchell can look forward to next season is playing with strong safety Troy Polamalu, who signed a contract extension to remain with the Steelers next season.

“It’s going to be a great honor, a great learning experience,” Mitchell said. “Being a young guy in Oakland, I really didn’t have an older player to learn from. Everything I’ve picked up has kind of been on my own. Learning from arguably the best player to ever play my position, there will only be good things to come from this experience. He’s a great football player.

“I just look forward to seeing how he works, seeing how he practices and studies. I don’t know if I’ll be jumping over the line of scrimmage to make those types of crazy plays, but hopefully there will be things I can pick up from him that will one day make me a great player.”


Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.

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