- Associated Press - Thursday, September 18, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) - The proof is in the notes. Meticulously crafted. Carefully annotated. Relentlessly pored over. One glimpse at Mike Mitchell’s studiousness is all it took for longtime Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor to realize how seriously his team’s newest safety takes his football.

“You can pretty much get a game plan off them,” Taylor said.

That’s kind of the point. The Steelers signed Mitchell to a five-year, $25-million contract in the offseason - a rare free agent splurge by the typically inward-looking franchise - because of his mixture of raw athleticism and thoughtful approach to the game.

After four erratic years in Oakland, Mitchell flourished in Carolina last fall. Serving as the backbone for one of the NFL’s best defenses, Mitchell helped spearhead a renaissance that guided the Panthers to the playoffs. Just don’t expect Mitchell to get nostalgic on Sunday night when the Steelers (1-1) travel to unbeaten Carolina (2-0).

“I’m still in touch with some of those guys, and I’m sure I’ll see them before the game and give ‘em a hug,” Mitchell said. “But really, it’s all business.”

It’s the only way Mitchell knows how to do his job as a Steelers safety. Call it a sense of responsibility that comes with enduring an extended run in Oakland, where the former second-round pick failed to earn a starting spot.

He landed in Carolina, where he stepped in and immediately made an impact. He collected four sacks and four interceptions while developing a reputation as one of the hardest hitters on a defense filled with them.

“It was the first time where everyone was on the same page every single play,” he said. “The way we meet. The way we practice. The way we play in the games. When you know where everyone is going and what everyone is supposed to be doing, it’s easy to play well.”

Mitchell played so well that the salary cap-stressed Panthers couldn’t make a run at him when he hit the open market. The Steelers, looking for someone to replace aging Ryan Clark, wasted little time opening their wallet for a 27-year-old they believe could serve as the disciplined yin to star Troy Polamalu’s freewheeling yang.

Playing alongside Polamalu isn’t easy. The perennial Pro Bowler is given wide latitude to trust his instincts at the back end of coordinator Dick LeBeau’s intricate 3-4. Sometimes he’s right. Sometimes he’s not, putting pressure on the other safety to help erase mistakes.

“It’s difficult for everybody playing with (Polamalu),” cornerback William Gay said. “But Mike is a guy that knows that game. It’s not hard for him to pick up the rhythm of how Troy likes to play and the rest of the defense plays.”

The partnership remains a work in progress. Polamalu and Mitchell worked together briefly during minicamp and Mitchell was limited when training camp opened due to a groin problem. They’re still getting a feel for each other, just like the other nine guys they share the field with.

Through two games Pittsburgh’s revamped defense has yet to create a turnover and is 30th against the run. Mitchell is fourth on the team in tackles, most of them coming well downfield.

When asked to diagnose the problems, Mitchell hardly sounds like someone who has been in town for only a few months.

“You can’t be sometimey,” Mitchell said. “You’ve got to do it every play and you’ve got to do it for 60 plays. That’s what separates the really, really good teams from the average teams. And this defense has all the pieces.”

Including a very important one at the back.

Mitchell stressed he doesn’t feel pressure to live up to his contract though there have been a few uncharacteristic miscues in the early going. He received an unnecessary roughness penalty for hitting Baltimore wide receiver Steve Smith in the end zone last week - though replays showed Mitchell legally led with his shoulder. And Ravens running back Justin Forsett easily juked by him during a 41-yard run to the goal line.

Mitchell is keenly aware when he falls short. In case he’d forgotten, he need only check his Twitter account, an exercise that typically ends with him laughing.

“I get tweets saying ‘Why did you make that tackle 20 yards downfield?’” Mitchell said. “Well I lined up 20 yards deep and I was deep middle. I’m not going to make that tackle for a 2-yard gain. But that’s how it goes. People on the outside don’t really know what’s going on on the inside. My teammates know what I’m doing and as long as I have their trust and the coach’s trust, I’m content.”

NOTES: Steelers G Ramon Foster (ankle) did not practice on Thursday. He will try to practice on Friday but is questionable for Sunday. … WR Lance Moore (groin) and WR Martavis Bryant (shoulder) both practiced and should be available versus the Panthers.


AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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