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Mitchell wants to help get Steelers defense back to top

| Thursday, March 13, 2014, 2:33 p.m.

The new Steelers safety is a big hitter, a talker on and off the field and a player with an acknowledged predilection for picking up fines for aggressive play.

Sounds like Mike Mitchell couldn't be a more fitting replacement for Ryan Clark, the departing Steelers safety who shared many characteristics of the man who will now play alongside Troy Polamalu in the secondary.

Mitchell said he needed to only hear the words “Pittsburgh Steelers” from agent Brian Hamilton to get excited. Growing up a Bengals fans outside of Cincinnati, Mitchell admittedly was “afraid” of the Steelers.

“The brand of football that the Steelers are about and they play is very hard-nosed, physical and smash-mouthed,” Mitchell said Thursday. “I think my personality and the way I play just meshes perfectly with what we are trying to do here.”

What the Steelers are trying to do is reconstruct a defense that has been the NFL's best statistically for a decade, but is moving on without longtime components such as Larry Foote, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and Ziggy Hood. Thursday, Woodley signed a two-year deal with Oakland worth $12 million and Hood signed a reported $16 million, four-year contract with Jacksonville.

Longtime defensive end Brett Keisel also is unsigned.

The defections of Hood and Al Woods (Titans) leave the Steelers precariously thin at defensive end, with only Cam Heyward having starting experience. The only other defensive ends on the roster are Brian Arnfelt and Nicholas Williams.

The Steelers are bringing in former Bills defensive end Alex Carrington for a visit, but the Browns also are interested; new coach Mike Pettine was Buffalo's defensive coordinator last season. Friday, the Steelers also are bringing in Cam Thomas, a 6-foot-4, 330-pound nose tackle formerly of the Chargers.

Mitchell's focus is on improving a back end of a Steelers defense that, except for Polamalu, generated few sacks, turnovers or disruption. Mitchell created all three elements last season in the Carolina Panthers' No. 2-ranked defense.

“I think I'm going to mesh well, with the attitude and the nasty the Pittsburgh Steelers defense is known for,” said Mitchell. “I'm looking forward to helping them get back to that dominant defense.”

When the Steelers had just such a defense several years ago, it also was the most-fined unit. Clark drew a $40,000 fine for a helmet-to-helmet hit in 2011, and Harrison was fined over $100,000.

Mitchell, a backup in Oakland his first four seasons, didn't become a starter in Carolina until after last season began, but he quickly accumulated what he estimated was more than $40,000 in fines.

After being fined $7,875 for a taunting violation against the Rams, Mitchell said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was targeting him, similar to what Clark once did.

“I won't be talking about fines very much because, as a defensive player, we all have to adjust to the game,” Mitchell said. “There is a little bit of a transition period. Being a young player, I didn't have much experience, and I had to learn that very quickly and I will. I'm going to continue to get better in that aspect of it.”

A year ago, Mitchell was lightly sought in free agency, but Raiders safety and former teammate Twon Branch convinced him he needed only a chance to prove that he was a starter. Mitchell signed a one-year deal with the intent of establishing himself, then signing for more money this year.

Mitchell, now 26, did that with his $25 million, five-year deal with the Steelers, although only $5.25 million is guaranteed.

“I just look forward to this opportunity to show them again,” Mitchell said. “It's no different now.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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