The best photos of Safety Mike Mitchell from the 2015 season thus far.
Defensive backs coach Carnell Lake has seen a different secondary this season and a different Mike Mitchell.
And there's a direct correlation, Lake maintains, between those two developments.
"It's night and day, really," Lake assessed of Mitchell's play through 10 games. "I have to give Mike credit for being tough last year and fighting through injury and playing the whole season. He caught a lot of grief because people thought he was a bust. Looking back on it, we talked about it at the end of the season, the guy was playing hurt and I have to commend him for that.
"Now that he's healthy he looks like the guy we wanted to go after in free agency. Because he's healthy his talents are coming through."
Photos of Defensive Backs Coach Carnell Lake.
Mitchell started 16 games at free safety last season, his first with the Steelers after signing a five-year contract as an unrestricted free agent from Carolina.
He finished with zero interceptions, zero sacks, zero fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and three passes defensed.
Through 10 games this season Mitchell has a team-leading three interceptions, a team-leading two forced fumbles (tied with linebacker Ryan Shazier), a fumble recovery and six passes defensed (tied for second among Steelers along with cornerback Ross Cockrell and linebacker Lawrence Timmons behind cornerback Antwon Blake's nine).
"His movement really, just his physical movement is a lot better than it was last year," Lake continued regarding the resurrection of Mitchell's game. "He didn't really have any breaks (the ability to stop and change direction) last year. He had two torn groins. I don't see how he really played, to be honest with you, but he did."
The secondary has accounted for eight of the Steelers' nine interceptions through 10 games (Mitchell has three, Blake two, Cockrell two and strong safety Will Allen one).
The Steelers had 11 interceptions in 16 regular-season games last season, nine of which were produced by DBs (cornerbacks William Gay and Brice McCain had three each, cornerback Cortez Allen had two and Blake one).
"We're playing cohesively but guys are in the right position to make their plays," Lake said. "We have eyes on the football. I don't want to put more into it than it is right now. I just hope it continues and I think it will if we continue to play smart defense and disciplined defense."
"Eyes on the football" suggests the Steelers have relied more on zone coverage this season.
But Lake doesn't consider that the difference-making aspect of the secondary's play.
"I'd say more so than normal but not too far off of our norm," he said. "It's just that we have guys this year as opposed to maybe last year, when we're getting our opportunity we're actually catching the ball. I'd say it's probably more that than anything right now."
The Steelers traded for cornerback Brandon Boykin during training camp but the vast majority of his opportunities have come on special teams.
"I'm glad we have Boykin, he's a good addition," Lake said. "For Boykin to play (on defense) somebody else would have to be playing bad right now and that's really just the reality of it. I have faith and confidence that Boykin can play. It's just that we're doing OK."
The acquisition of Cockrell in September (he'd been waived by Buffalo) and his development as the sub-package, "nickel" cornerback is one of the reasons Boykin hasn't seen the field more often.
"He's making plays and he's trying to do what we're asking him to do," Lake said. "He's still young and he's made some mistakes along the way. But he's a coachable guy, he cares and he has some talent."
When they went to training camp the Steelers were anticipating that Cortez Allen would start at cornerback, that Shamarko Thomas would start at strong safety and that Senquez Golson would potentially contribute as a rookie second-round pick.
But Cortez Allen and Golson are on injured reserve and Thomas was replaced by Will Allen prior to the regular-season opener at New England.
"I try to hold the standard pretty high," Lake said. "It doesn't matter to me who I have in my room. The key is that you do what is asked of you, what your assignment asks of you. You may not have all the best talents in the world. You may come from a variety of backgrounds. The key is just to do what's asked, for me that's what's important.
"I think we're improving every week and I think that's the most important thing."
That goes for the secondary and for the defensive staff.
"Not only have our players improved but we as coaches in coming up with gameplans, we're improving every week, too," Lake said. "And I think that's helping."