The final one in a series that looks at every position on offense and defense with training camp approaching, we take a look at the Steelers' safeties.
Returning starter: Troy Polamalu. The eight-time Pro Bowler played every game last season and, as usual, did a little bit of everything for the Steelers. Polamalu recorded 69 tackles, forced a career-high five fumbles and tied for the team lead with two interceptions. The durability that Polamalu exhibited while playing a team-high 1,041 snaps in 2013 was especially impressive considering he often played inside linebacker on passing downs.
New face: Mike Mitchell. The Steelers moved quickly to get younger and faster on the back end of their defense, signing Mitchell to a five-year, $25 million contract on the first day of free agency. Mitchell, who turned 27 last month, enjoyed a breakout season with the Carolina Panthers after four mostly nondescript ones in Oakland. Mitchell intercepted four passes and notched 3.5 sacks while making 66 tackles for the Panthers in 2013. He should be a significant upgrade over Ryan Clark at free safety.
On the bubble: Robert Golden and Ross Ventrone. The Steelers appear to be set as far as their top four safeties with veteran Will Allen and second-year man Shamarko Thomas providing depth behind Polamalu and Mitchell. Golden and Ventrone are among those battling for a roster spot based on their special-teams play and Golden has the clear advantage here.
By the numbers: The previous two seasons that Polamalu played every game (2008 and 2011) he suited up for five and seven games, respectively, the following seasons. Polamalu, 33, has not played every game in back-to-back seasons since 2004-05.
Did you know: Ventrone only played one year of high school football at Chartiers Valley, which is in the Pittsburgh suburb of Bridgeville. He played in eight games for the New England Patriots in 2011 and his brother, Ray, is a safety for the San Francisco 49ers.
Quotable: “I don’t think it’s been hard at all. Coach (Dick) LeBeau and coach (Carnell) Lake are both great teachers and I don’t want to say it’s been easy but they’ve made it easier on me to pick up the playbook. It’s not rocket science.” – Mitchell on learning the Steelers’ defense.
Outlook: Age and the grind of 11 NFL seasons has caught up with Polamalu a little bit, but he is still a top-tier safety as well as one of the few proven playmakers that the Steelers have on defense. Mitchell should make Polamalu better and the addition of inside linebacker Ryan Shazier should free up Polamalu to play all over the field. Thomas is expected to make a big jump in his second season and he could overtake Allen as the No. 3 safety.