Mike Mitchell isn’t making a lot of friends outside of Pittsburgh this year. The Steelers safety was added to Steve Smith’s “all-time hit list” after supposedly celebrating a teammate’s hit. His powerful blows have landed Raiders running back Latavius Murray and Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert in concussion protocol. Bengals wide receiver Marvin Jones called Mitchell “fake tough” after a vicious hit and subsequent taunt.
Mitchell takes it all in stride. Outside image aside, he’s quite popular in Pittsburgh these days, a key cog on a team that’s won four of its last five and is gelling at the right time.
As the 8–5 Steelers, clawing for a playoff spot, get ready to face Denver in a must-win game Sunday Mitchell reflected on his bad-boy image on-the-field, his philanthropy off it and that time when Mel Kiper Jr. thought the Raiders made a huge mistake drafting him in the second round.
Melissa Jacobs: You really don’t like the Bengals, do you?
Mike Mitchell: You said that.
MJ: Am I wrong?
MM: Obviously they’re a division opponent. We play twice a year so there’s going to be a little extra when you play any division opponent.
MJ: How satisfying was the win last Sunday?
MM: It was exactly what we needed. We knew we couldn’t lose it. We’re basically in playoff mode right now, and we needed to be the most desperate team out there. We need to have that approach for every game now.
MJ: The Bengals-Steelers rivalry seems like it’s really grown. I’m not sure how much of that is a product of being the best two teams in the division. Where do you think it stands now in comparison to Steelers-Ravens?
MM: It’s probably them more than us. Obviously they have the better record this year. They’re a good team, an emerging team. We’re the best two teams and we’re going to be battling it out now.
But there’s nothing like being in Baltimore for that rivalry. That’s very special and on another level. But the game we just played last Sunday got pretty close, and it’s the first time I’ve seen it get like that. We’ll see how it goes moving forward.
MJ: You’ve made a lot of big-time hits on a lot of big-time receivers this year. When you Google your name, the first results are “Hit on Steve Smith,” “Hit on Latavius Murray,” “Hit on Marvin Jones,” etc.
MJ: How important is it for you to maintain your image of destroying people?
MM: I think it’s big. But I want to do it by the rules. I don’t want to be a guy who’s highly penalized and hurts his team in any way. Sunday was the first time I got the head-to-head called on me this year. I’ve been doing a pretty good job of playing physical and still being violent but also playing by the rules. I want to have the presence where if you’re on offense and you’re running a route you want to be thinking about me more than you want to be thinking about the ball. It’s a simple respect thing.
MJ: You mentioned earlier about the focus being on trying to get to the playoffs. We had a piece on SI.com this week about you guys being the team no one wants to face in January, but you have to get there first. How are you feeling about your chances right now?
MM: We feel really good about them. Wish you guys wouldn’t write those articles, though.
MJ: People like to read them. I’m sorry.
MM: I’m just kidding. We’re the Pittsburgh Steelers, we’re not sneaking up on anybody. Everyone gives us their best game regardless. I think we have an extremely confident team and extremely confident coaching staff. We believe in one another. I think we’re as healthy as we’re going to get this year and everyone knows who we have. We’re finally setting in and starting to play complementary football. Last week was probably the closest we’ve had this year of playing a total package versus a high quality opponent.
MJ: What’s the mood like in the locker room right now? Anything different?
MM: To be honest with you, there’s nothing different. I credit that to Coach Tomlin. He’s a guy who says the same things every day. You can almost [pre] quote him in his meeting sometimes. He actually says less this time of year because he already knows we know what’s he’s going to say. Now it’s on us. We know what he expects.
MJ: Despite all your toughness on the field, I know you’re a do-gooder off it. Can you talk about the “Believe To Achieve” ticket program you launched a few weeks ago?
MM: It’s something that’s near and dear to my heart. I had a best friend growing up and he grew up in a single-parent family with his mother. He wound up playing with me for probably my first two years in the NFL and really getting to know him, there were so many similarities. But the real difference was that I had two good parents in my life that were leading me and guiding me, reminding me to get good grades and keep me focused. I think that’s why I’ve been successful. I look at him. We had the same likes, the same drive, the same work ethic, athletic ability and things like that, but when it came to that guidance I don’t think he had it. I think he was failed and if he had more support, heck, he might be in the NFL right with me.
That’s why I started this, to give back to, what’s mostly inner-city kids, to give them an opportunity for someone to seek a positive influence in their life, to encourage them. I’m partnered up with a faith-based group called Urban Impact, their whole goal is to change the community one person at a time. They already had the kids. So now we give them four tickets to every home game and they select kids who have been the most dedicated and rewarding them. I get to meet them and give them a tour of the facility after the game. They’re actually my good luck charm because we’re 2-0 since I’ve been doing this and the games haven’t been close.
MJ: Take us back to the 2009 draft. How surprised were you to be taken in the second round?
MM: I was a little surprised. I wasn’t surprised to be drafted because when my agent makes promises, he comes through almost 100% of the time. He had a great feeling that I’d be drafted higher than people thought. We were thinking fourth, fifth round, so when I got that call from Oakland in the second round I was a little shocked. Some people were saying I wasn’t going to get drafted. That wasn’t the issue.
MJ: Mel Kiper was one who expressed displeasure with the pick at the time, and I remember vividly that ESPN didn’t even have film on you queued up.
MM: That goes to show how good Mel Kiper is at his job. Now I’m seven years in the league and I don’t know many safeties better than me. If you listen to him, golly, where would we be?
MJ: Does that stuff still motivate you to this day?
MM: A little bit. I think I’m always a guy who carries a chip on his shoulder. Do I think of Mel Kiper on a daily basis? No. Mel Kiper is irrelevant to me. It did motivate me when I first got drafted, for sure.
MJ: Let’s close with some rapid fire questions. Best safety in the NFL?
MJ: Most trash-talking wide receiver?
MM: A.B. [Antonio Brown]. Usually when I’m yapping with him after he catches the ball, he starts talking to the DB as well.
MJ: Better TD celebration: Brown or William Gay?
MM: I think Will Gay took the cake. Especially after we acknowledged there was a player on the field and we knew we’d take out time with it. That was clutch by him—it had to be at least a minute. We all have little celebrations we do, but I think he did it with everyone he has one with, even the coach.
MJ: First thing you’d change in the NFL if you were commissioner?
MM: That’s easy, it would be this helmet-to-helmet stuff. I totally get it with CTE and player safety. Obviously I don’t want to have CTE when I’m older or depression or any kind of brain trauma. But if you look at the play Sunday I got flagged for, that was a perfectly targeted shot to that guy’s stomach. When I see the ball thrown, my eyes now go to the receiver. I don’t know that the ball is thrown low. I don’t know that he’s going to dive and go low to catch the ball.
When the ref explained it to me, it wasn’t a subjective thing, It’s ‘Did he hit in the head or didn’t he?’ What do you want me to do in that situation, NFL, let him catch the ball?
MJ: Are you going to see the Concussion film?
MM: I will. I tend to watch most of Will Smith’s films.
MJ: One thing about Coach Tomlin we may not know?
MM: On TV and judging by interviews, you’d think he’s way more serious than he is. When he gets comfortable with you, he’s one of the funnier people I know. He’s always cracking jokes and they’re good ones, too.
MJ: What’s one thing about you we don’t know?
MM: I’m not as crazy as everyone thinks.