LATROBE -- The Pittsburgh Steelers held their first practice of training camp on Sunday, but they were still in shorts and left all of the questions that come with molding a football team still up in the air.
Like Mike Mitchell.
The free safety who came off an admittedly disappointing 2014 season as the Steelers' high-end free-agent acquisition is running around like a caged animal in anticpation of hitting someone, anyone, in earnest.
That won't start until Wednesday.
"We get to see who's physical and who's not; who's willing to tackle and who's not," said Mitchell. "It's the hard-hat time of the year. We need lumberjacks right now. Everyone's got to do their job chopping down this tree."
Mitchell is obsessed with overcoming his disappointing 2014. Yes, the Steelers won the AFC North, but Mitchell, who had signed a $25 million contract, played with two groin tears and a hand injury and didn't intercept a pass or sack a quarterback a year after recording four of each. So to that end, he's the guy running extra sprints after practice, doing extra sit-ups, and walking past the media without saying a word -- unless you run after him.
Yes, obsession is the correct word.
"Football is something that's very important to me," Mitchell said. "I want to be great. I think my coaches know that. Anyone who really knows me knows I want to be at the top of my game, and you've got to do those little things to separate yourself, so I'm pretty much willing to do whatever it takes."
After last season, Mitchell underwent surgeries to repair both torn groins and went straight into lifting and rehabbing. After he was cleared medically, he went to Florida to work with his trainer before coming back for spring drills. When that ended, he went back to Florida to resume training, and he trained with Antonio Brown some days and Le'Veon Bell other days.
Yep, he trained with the best.
"Our best players are our best conditioned guys and I'm always looking to improve my conditioning," Mitchell said. "I think I did a good job of that this summer. I put on four pounds and lost some body fat. I'm doing everything I can to be the best safety that I can be. That's all my dad wants from me. That's all my family wants from me. That's all Coach (Mike) Tomlin wants from me. That's all I want from myself."
And so here he is at training camp with a no-nonsense, all-business approach. With Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Brice McCain gone from the secondary, Mitchell is filling the leadership void by working as hard as he possibly can. It's the example that often counts most.
"I definitely try to speak up a little bit more than last year because there is a little bit of a void," Mitchell said. "But Will Gay is definitely a leader of the secondary. Will Allen has experience and tenure in the National Football League. I'm still learning things different ways to take care of my body. I'm in my seventh year and Frenchie (Allen) is in his 12th and there are things he teaches me about taking care of my body. Probably between the three of us we try to do our parts, try to lead this group, because it is a young group. We have a lot of young talent and I think we can be great. I think we're way ahead of where we were last year, as far as communication. We had so many injuries: Ike, Cortez (Allen). It was like a wheel of fortune, if you will, as to who was healthy each week. We've had the same group this offseason and our communication is on point right now and we're just trying to get better each day."
New defensive coordinator Keith Butler said he's counting on Mitchell "to be rangy, all over the field, be able to go from sideline to sideline and have a little better feel for the defense this year and how to play within the framework of the defense. If he does that, we'll be OK."
Butler said that injuries hurt Mitchell last year, as did playing for the first time with the instinctive and sometimes freewheeling Polamalu.
"It hurts you because he didn't know the defense like Troy did," Butler said. "Troy knew the defense backwards and forwards and Mike might've thought he knew it all at the time, but it's hard to understand all this defense unless you play in it for a couple of years, or at least a year. I think he'll be much, much better this year."
"My dad always says, and it's one of my favorite quotes of his, there's a reason for failure but never an excuse," said Mitchell. "If you look at my statistics and everything, I had a decent year. It's not like I was terrible. There were a lot of other safeties that I still outperformed with two torn groins and my hand that had to be surgically repaired. I didn't play up to the level of my expectations, or the expectations of my father, and that's what's most disappointing. There are a lot of reasons that go into that and no one wants to hear about them. That's just how my dad raised me. We just put our head down and we go back to work. That's why you see me running the extra sprints. That's why I haven't had much of an offseason. Because I want to have a great year this year."
NOTES -- James Harrison and Will Allen missed the first practice but for no apparent injury. "I’m going to protect him from himself," Tomlin said of Harrison. "He and Will Allen are too old to be working right now." ... First-year cornerback Kevin Fogg, who was one of the surprises of the spring, had the first interception of training camp as a member of the second-team defense.