Even without Aaron Smith.
Yep. Mitchell, the Steelers' defensive line coach the past 19 seasons, was asked years ago when he was going to retire. "When Aaron Smith retires," Mitchell said.
Well, guess what?
"What?" Mitchell said with a big laugh after Thursday's practice. "Yeah, I'm still here. But I've still got some good players."
Right. Perhaps two first-round defensive linemen in the last four drafts was Steelers coach Mike Tomlin's way of enticing Mitchell to stick around.
Then again, all it takes sometimes is a great practice, like the one Mitchell's troops turned in Thursday.
"I thought today was the first real day that, as a team, defensively, especially the defensive line, we looked like a Steelers defensive line," Mitchell said. "I told Mike that. I told him today we could win. I don't care who we had to play today, we played well enough in practice to win today."
Anything stand out in particular? "Everybody carried out their assignment, they kept their pads low, they used their hands, they got off on the ball, we didn't have any offsides. They did the little things today that coaches look for so players can be successful."
Steve McLendon is one reason Mitchell is happy. Mitchell knew what he had coming back in Brett Keisel and the two No. 1 picks, Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward. But with Casey Hampton out, McLendon was the unknown, the X factor. He started camp by giving Maurkice Pouncey headache in one-on-one drills, and yesterday that continued when McLendon whipped the Pro Bowler again.
"Steve's a baller, man," said Pouncey. "He's probably the next best thing to Hamp. He's getting me better just as I'm getting him better."
With Hampton on the PUP list rehabbing an ACL tear from last season, rookie fourth-round pick Alameda ("Call me Meda") Ta'amu has received plenty of work. But even though the rookie's displays of raw power are tantalizing, Mitchell said he has a long way to go.
"I don't have a rookie right now that's worth talking about," Mitchell said. "They're working hard. They're trying to learn the playbook. But they're not where I want them to be. I'm pushing them, but, hey, they get tired, they feel sorry for themselves, and they go berserk. So right now I don't have a guy I can talk about, a rookie that's ready to play in the NFL."
Even if Ta'amu doesn't play much this year, the Steelers can afford to keep three nose tackles because McLendon and even Al Woods can play both nose tackle and end.
McLendon is also enjoying the fact that coordinator Dick LeBeau is calling more of an attacking style of play for the defensive linemen this year, but Mitchell said that's only temporary.
"You know, in this league, in the division we're in, you've got to stop the run, and the way you stop the run is you get on a man, you knock him back, and you get off and make plays," Mitchell said. "We've got a lot of young guys right now who can't play the zero technique – get on the center and play on both sides of the ball – so we're trying to help them and we're moving them. Until those guys get to where they can play a Pouncey head up and defeat him, we've got to move him." It's a minor criticism of McLendon, who has worked hard enough after being cut four times to play in 15 games last season. So it's not only the blue-chip first-rounders that keep Mitchell coming back for more.
"Who wouldn't want to coach a young guy on the rise that I think's going to be a pretty good football player?" Mitchell asked. "I did say that about Aaron Smith and still came back, but if I'd have lost Aaron Smith, Casey and Keis in the same year, yeah, I would've called it quits. But I've got some good young football players. Ziggy's having a heck of a summer camp. And what can you say about 99? He's playing like he's five years younger."
No. 99, Keisel, is asserting himself as a team leader. During Thursday's competition period against the offensive line, Keisel watched Ta'amu go through the motions during some stunt work. "C'mon, Meda, get physical!" Keisel barked. And the 350-pound rookie responded by blasting fellow 350-pounder Ramon Foster on the next snap, as Keisel nodded in approval.
"Aaron Smith, he led by coming out here and being a blue-collar player," Mitchell said. "Keisel's a little more vocal, and when you see an 11-year guy run his ass to the ball every play, every down, I mean, the young guys see this. That's not something you see in an 11-year guy, but that's what he does every day. Keisel's Keisel. He's going to give you everything he's got. He's going to work hard. That sucker's a winner."
And of course Heyward has improved with a full spring and summer of workouts. The 2011 first-round pick rocked Trai Essex to follow up on Ta'amu's belt of Foster. It was a wave of momentum the defensive line carried into the team scrimmage.
"We've got some guys I feel can play," Mitchell said. "Hey, I don't want to see Keisel play 60 plays a game, or Ziggy Hood playing 60 plays a game. We've got enough good football players where they can play 40 and 45 plays a game and they can be fresh. And if we're fortunate enough to play January and February ball, we'll be able to play."