Mike Mitchell, at 29, provides the Steelers’ an anchor at free safety for the foreseeable future. Strong safety is another story.
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Long known for their linebackers and pass-rushers on the line, the Steelers had another position on defense that contributed mightily to their success through the years.
No Steelers safety has made the Hall of Fame yet, but since their renaissance as a franchise in the 1970s, safeties have played a pivotal role.
They would like to return to those days of strong safety play and approach the new NFL year with an opportunity to do so.
Their history of strong safety play took hold when Mike Wagner and Glen Edwards made the Pro Bowl after the team’s second Super Bowl season in 1975. It continued when Donnie Shell replaced Edwards at strong safety, intercepted 51 passes and became a five-time Pro Bowl selection and later a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
That tradition continued with four-time Pro Bowl strong safety Carnell Lake and others who were good, if not all-stars: Darren Perry, Thomas Everett, Brent Alexander and Lee Flowers. Then along came Troy Polamalu, who should be the first Steelers safety to make the Hall of Fame. He was later joined by Ryan Clark, who made a Pro Bowl with Polamalu for the 2011 season, only the second time the Steelers put a safety duo in that all-star game.
It has been a relatively strong position for the Steelers, give or take a few seasons, since the 1970s.
So, where does it stand as they enter the 2016 season?
They need an upgrade.
Free safety Mike Mitchell, signed as an unrestricted free agent in 2014 to replace Clark, did a good job in 2015 after his first season was marred by groin injuries that required postseason surgery.
In 2015 he led the Steelers with three interceptions — one of them perhaps saving their victory against Arizona when he picked off Carson Palmer in the end zone late to preserve a five-point lead. He also tied for the team lead with two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. In addition, he was third with 80 tackles.
At 29, entering his eighth NFL season, Mitchell is in his prime. Despite another surgery in January to fix a shoulder that bothered him in 2015, he has not missed a game in his two seasons with the Steelers. They are in good shape with him at free safety.
That is not necessarily the case at strong safety, where the Steelers will look at their third starter in three seasons. Last year, Will Allen primarily filled Polamalu’s old spot by starting 13 games. Robert Golden started the other three. Both will become unrestricted free agents March 9 unless the Steelers sign them before that.
Allen, who will be 34 in June, rejoined the Steelers after Dallas cut him early in the 2013 season. He had signed with the Cowboys as a free agent from the Steelers, whom he joined as a free agent from Tampa Bay in 2010. They could sign him for one more year at the veteran minimum to give them depth and a steady hand, but they need to improve the position.
Allen primarily was a backup and spot starter for the Steelers until pressed into service as a starter last season after Shamarko Thomas again failed to stake his claim to the job.
The Steelers drafted Thomas in 2013, trading a third-round 2014 draft pick to Cleveland in order to get the Browns’ fourth-round selection.
“Shamarko Thomas is a very physical, fast safety,” general manager Kevin Colbert said shortly after drafting him. “He’s not the biggest kid, but he certainly doesn’t play that way. He leaves it on the field.”
Unfortunately for the Steelers, their coaches deemed Thomas not good enough to even get on the field last season. With Polamalu’s retirement, it was time for Thomas to make his move in his third NFL season, free of the injuries that were blamed for holding him back in 2014. Although healthy, he played just 20 snaps on defense last season. As he approaches his fourth and final year under contract, there is little reason to believe he will make the big step to starting strong safety.
Golden, who has been with the team since he signed as an undrafted rookie in 2012, leapfrogged Thomas on the depth chart and played 35 percent of the defense’s snaps last season as a third safety. They even used him on occasion as a linebacker in passing defenses. He also served as a special-teams captain.
The Steelers paid him $1.5 million as a restricted free agent last year and no doubt would like to have him back with a reasonable salary. Barring a free-agent or draft acquisition, he could be a fallback at starting safety.
Another safety, Ross Ventrone, is strictly a special-teams performer.
While much has been made — rightfully so — about the Steelers needing to acquire a top-notch cornerback, they need that kind of safety, as well. There will be several good safeties available in free agency such as Eric Berry of Kansas City, Eric Weddle of San Diego and George Iloka of Cincinnati. The draft, as the Steelers again discovered with Thomas, is not always the best place to find them. Indeed, their past two starting free safeties next to Polamalu were signed as unrestricted free agents, Clark and Mitchell.
They do not have draft picks in the fifth or sixth rounds after trading theirs away. If they want immediate help at safety from the draft, they likely must use a high pick to get it.
Ed Bouchette: email@example.com and Twitter @EdBouchette.
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