Steelers' position outlook: Safety

PITTSBURGH -- This is the last in a series that takes a post-free agency, post-draft look at all of the positions with the exception of quarterback.

Our ninth look is at the position where the Steelers made their most significant free-agent acquisition.


Who is new: Mike Mitchell. The Steelers signed the fifth-year veteran to a five-year, $25 million contract, moving quickly after the start of free agency to add speed and youth to the back end of their defense.

Who is gone: Ryan Clark. The Steelers went in another direction at free safety after eight seasons of Clark starting there. He signed a one-year contract with the Redskins, the team Clark had been with before joining the Steelers in 2006.

Returning starter: Troy Polamalu. The eight-time Pro Bowler, who agreed to a new three-year contact in March, remains the face of the Steelers’ defense. Polamalu played every game last season, and he held up remarkably well despite playing significant snaps at inside linebacker on passing downs. The addition of Ryan Shazier will allow Polamalu to play exclusively at safety though he will continue to line up all over the field in Dick LeBeau’s defense.

Most significant addition: Mitchell. Everything came together for Mitchell last season in Carolina where he intercepted four passes and registered 3 ½ sacks while recording 66 tackles. The 6-foot, 210-pounder gives the Steelers a speedy playmaker, something they desperately needed in the secondary, and he only turns 27 next month.

Most significant loss: Clark. A heady player and fearless hitter, Clark made 102 tackles last season, second most on the Steelers, and tied for the team lead with two interceptions. As well as Clark played in Pittsburgh, the Steelers needed more speed at free safety.

On outside looking in: Robert Golden. The second-year man didn’t play a defensive snap after the fourth game of 2013, and he will again have to make the 53-man roster based on his work on special teams. The Steelers appear set at safety with Polamalu, Mitchell, Shamarko Thomas and Will Allen. But a couple of players always seem to make the team as special-teamers, something Golden did last year.

Hidden number: Polamalu and Clark started 86 regular-season games together at safety, and that experience as well as their close friendship allowed them to play well off one another.

Outlook: The Steelers shored up safety with the signing of Mitchell and the re-signing of Allen, who reinvigorated his career after returning to Pittsburgh last October following an abbreviated stint in Dallas. Thomas is expected to make a big jump in his second season after playing significant games as a rookie before sustaining a high-ankle injury. Polamalu can be vulnerable in coverage because of his propensity to gamble, but he is still playing at a high level. The big key with Polamalu is how quickly he develops the kind of chemistry with Mitchell that will allow him to freelance on defense.