The key playmaker of the defense will turn out Tuesday for the start of Steelers minicamp, ready to strut his stuff at safety.
Troy Polamalu? Well, yes, he is scheduled to make his first appearance with his teammates this spring. That is where he will meet the new playmaker the Steelers are counting on to invigorate their defense, Mike Mitchell.
Polamalu has a new partner at safety for the first time in nine years with the departure of Ryan Clark to the Washington Redskins and the addition of Mitchell from the Carolina Panthers.
Mitchell played just one season for Carolina, and it was the best of his five in the NFL after the Oakland Raiders drafted him in the second round in 2009. He had 3.5 sacks, 4 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles for the NFL’s second-ranked defense.
That was double the interceptions any Steelers defender had in 2013, and even Polamalu never had that many sacks in one season. It’s the kind of playmaking ability the Steelers defense has lacked the past few years, and they hope Mitchell can help provide it.
“If you throw at me, I think I have a good chance of taking the ball away from you,” Mitchell said. “I pride myself on just creating turnovers and making positive plays for my team. A positive play sometimes is tackling them 1-yard short on third down because now they got to punt.
“Tackles for a loss, sacks, things of that nature — I just try to make the right football play at the time it needs to be made, and that’s what’s made me a pretty decent player.”
It helped earn him a five-year, $25 million contract as the Steelers’ premier free-agent signing this year. He turned 27 one week ago and joins a defense that has been transformed from old and slow to young and fast. Mitchell was clocked at 4.4 in the 40 while in college.
Tuesday, he will meet 33-year-old Polamalu for the first time, although the two have been communicating.
“I’m excited. I keep hearing so many things about him,” Mitchell said. “It’s hard to really get to know a guy through phone conversations and text messages. I look forward to seeing him in person, seeing how he works, things of that nature. I look forward to it, it’s going to be a great working relationship.”
The Steelers certainly hope so.
Clark teamed with Polamalu for eight seasons, and in that span they went to two Super Bowls and were part of a defense among the most feared in the league. But age helped to erode that and Mitchell will represent one of eight new starters from the regular defense that took the field just two years ago.
Polamalu played every snap on defense last season, many of those lining up right behind the defensive line as his role on the defense changed. With the drafting of speedy Ryan Shazier, who is expected to start at inside linebacker, the Steelers would like to move Polamalu off the line and back to playing strong safety, albeit as only Polamalu can do.
He had a great rapport with Clark, and Mitchell thinks they can develop one, too.
“We’re both professionals, and I’m in my playbook every night studying my butt off. When he gets here, we’ll both know the defenses. Now, there are some things me and him might have to talk about how we’re going to do certain things, but, for the most part I know the playbook, so there’s not too much.”
The Steelers gladly would take those 3.5 sacks and four interceptions from Mitchell again this season, but his production might depend on how they use him and how others play around him. Will they blitz Mitchell from the free-safety spot so he can get to the quarterback? Clark had only two sacks in his eight seasons with the Steelers, but then coordinator Dick LeBeau is renowned for coming up with new ideas and putting his players in different positions — such as Polamalu playing linebacker.
“I’m just going to keep doing what they ask me to do,” Mitchell said. “I’ll be doing a lot of things from covering and blitzing and everything in between.
“I’m not here to work any miracles or anything like that. I’m just going to come in and do the job the coaches ask me to do to the best of my ability.
“We already have a bunch of good players here, guys who have been doing it for a long time and young guys who are ready to do it. I don’t have to come in here and try to save the world by myself. I’m just going to do what the coaches ask me to do, play my role and play at a high level.”
It won’t save the world, but it might help a defense reverse its decline.
Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @EdBouchette.