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Mitchell: 'we make it work'

Photos from the last matchup vs the Broncos at Heinz Field on December 20th, 2015.

Throughout the season, defensive coordinator Keith Butler has tweaked and schemed and done his best to come up with new wrinkles.

One of the latest involves taking linebacker Lawrence Timmons out of the game and putting backup safety Rob Golden onto the field by design.

"I think it's just more speed," free safety Mike Mitchell offered. "It allows us to match up better when teams have four wide receivers or they have a really athletic tight end."

Timmons missed a defensive snap for the first time in 2015 when the Steelers went to their six-defensive backs sub-package look in their 33-20 win on Dec. 13 in Cincinnati.

The coaches must have liked what they saw because they went to the new look again during last Sunday's 34-27 win over Denver.

The Steelers still play five DBs with great regularity on obvious passing downs.

But with the Broncos at the Steelers' 41-yard line and less than two minutes to play last Sunday, the Steelers went from five to six DBs on third down and again on fourth down, the two downs that wound up slamming the door on what became Denver's final passion.

"I'm a team person," said Timmons, who played 79 percent of the defensive snaps (46) against the Bengals and 78 percent (60) against the Broncos after having not missed one previously. "Whatever will help our defense out, whatever will put us in the best position, I'm all about it."

Golden made the first three starts of his four-year NFL career on Oct. 18 against Arizona, on Oct. 25 at Kansas City and on Nov. 1 against Cincinnati when safety Will Allen was injured and inactive.

Allen's been back since the Steelers' game against the Raiders on Nov. 8, but of late the Steelers have still found ways to get Golden more involved, as they have slot cornerback Brandon Boykin.

The Steelers started with Antwon Blake and William Gay at cornerback against the Broncos and at first added cornerback Ross Cockrell in sub-package sets, as has been their habit this season (Gay moved into the slot in such situations and Cockrell and Blake played outside).

By game's end it was Gay, Cockrell and Boykin lining up at cornerback, Mitchell, Allen and Golden at safety, Ryan Shazier at inside linebacker, and outside linebackers Arthur Moats and Jarvis Jones and defensive ends Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt comprising a four-man line for the Broncos' final two snaps.

"We all got a lot of work together and we have such a tight group, we do a lot of stuff together as far as traveling, hanging out," Mitchell said of managing all the moving parts in the secondary. "Whoever's out there, we make it work.

"Rob G is a starter. Technically, he's not a starter but I think everybody in our room, in our group, on our defense looks at Rob as a starter."

Golden, the Steelers' special teams captain, believes he's getting better as a defensive back because of the additional snaps in the defensive backfield.

"With more reps comes better opportunities and the better you get," he said. "I feel like the more chances I get to play, the better I'm going to be."

The Steelers used six defensive backs in the regular-season opener on Sept. 10 at New England, but only for a couple of snaps. They also inadvertently went with just 10 players on defense for a couple of snaps against the Patriots, so clearly they were still sorting things out.

Mitchell pondered what they've become since, particularly with their new-found proficiency playing six defensive backs at a time, with just a hint of regret.

"Maybe it's something we could have had in New England when we go against those high-level tight ends," he said.

And maybe it's something the Steelers will rely upon the next time, if there is a next time, against the Patriots.

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