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Steelers free safety Mitchell is still settling into role on defense

| Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014, 8:00 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
The Steelers' Mike Mitchell makes a tackle on the Texans' Andre Johnson Monday, Oct. 20, 2014 at Heinz Field.

Mike Mitchell isn't the player he was last season in Carolina, and he knows it.

The Steelers don't want him to be.

As the free safety in the NFL's No. 2 defense last season, he often played much closer to the line of scrimmage, more heavily involved in the playmaking, more active in getting to the ball.

But as the free safety in the Steelers' No. 15 defense, he's more of a center fielder, protecting against the deep ball, guarding against passes over the middle. It's Troy Polamalu who's in the middle of everything, just as Mitchell knew he would be when he signed with the Steelers in March.

“The biggest difference is when you're playing with a Hall of Fame safety here, that has done a great job doing a lot of things for a long time, who covers well, who plays great in the box, who is a great blitzer, you don't get to do them because he's the Hall of Famer,” Mitchell said Thursday. “That can be frustrating at times, if that's what you like to do.

“I spend a lot more time in coverage here. (With the Panthers and Raiders), I'd be in the box, I'd be doing different things, whereas now I'm strictly coverage.”

Mitchell understands fans comparing his statistical line this season to last season might think he's underperforming. He had four sacks and four interceptions for Carolina in 2013 but has none of either this season.

“No question, but you can't get sacks if you don't really blitz,” Mitchell said. “Sometimes they're just looking at stats. They don't quite know and understand. … I'm not going to be a leading tackler because I line up 20 yards deep, but I'll do whatever they ask me to do. That's the role they asked me to come in here and do, and that's the role I'll do the best of my ability.”

Mitchell is grading out well — according to Pro Football Focus, he grades out higher than Polamalu. And his presence clearly is missed in Carolina.

With Mitchell at free safety, the Panthers allowed only five plays of longer than 30 yards in their first six games last season, with none longer than 46 yards. This season, they've given up 13 such plays, two of 80 yards-plus (including Le'Veon Bell's 81-yard run) and eight of 40-plus.

Mitchell's stats line picked up the past two weeks, a sign he might be getting over the groin injury that sidelined him for the first 10 days of training camp. It is believed he avoided having surgery so that he wouldn't miss a significant amount of playing time.

Coach Mike Tomlin sits out Mitchell during every Wednesday practice, which suggests the Steelers aren't risking him getting reinjured.

Mitchell said it's not difficult learning Dick LeBeau's massive defense — “I know the defense,” he said — although cornerback Brice McCain said there's always differences in moving from team to team.

“You have cover-3, you have cover-4, you have man (coverage), you have fire zones everywhere, (but) a lot of teams run them different, a lot of coaches see it different,” said McCain, who played for the Texans last season. “They put different people in different spots, but at the end of the day, it ends up being the same thing.”

And Mitchell is one of those players who's in a different spot. He likes that LeBeau played more Cover-2 against Houston because he thinks it gives him more opportunities to make plays.

“The one thing that is hard, realistically, are some of the open-field tackles I have to make,” he said. “When you're always in the fire, you're in the fire and, here, that's the Hall of Famer, that's what he does. Everyone pretty much broke that down to me (when he arrived), and I had to embrace it.

“And this place is awesome. The coaches are awesome. The players are awesome. Even getting to play with Troy, my job is less fun, but way easier.”

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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