Former Carolina Panthers safety Mike Mitchell has changed teams, conferences and – he says – his physical playing style.
Yet, the first question tossed to him Tuesday involved, as it often did during his lone season in Charlotte, a hit that drew a penalty flag and, possibly, a fine.
That the collision and resulting unnecessary roughness penalty came against Baltimore wideout Steve Smith, Mitchell’s ex-Panthers teammate, made it all the juicier.
“I’m just hoping it doesn’t cost me any money,” Mitchell said Tuesday, five days before his new team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, will visit Bank of America Stadium to face the Panthers.
Former Panthers defensive back D.J. Moore, after seeing Mitchell’s hit on the third-quarter incompletion last week in the Ravens’ 26-6 victory, tweeted that Mitchell and Smith “in no way shape or form (were) fans of each other.”
Apparently, the two strong-willed personalities weren’t chummy during the Panthers’ 12-win season in 2013. But Mitchell said he and Smith forged a bond during the offseason when Smith was released and found himself in free agency for the first time in his career.
“Steve’s a good dude. Me and him got close once the season was over and we were both in free agency. We exchanged a lot of text messages,” Mitchell said during a 20-minute phone interview. “I wasn’t trying to hit Steve in the head. As a competitor, we had texted during the week, just chopped it up for a little bit. … I thought it was a clean hit. Obviously, the referees didn’t see it that way.”
Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said he saw Mitchell’s hit on Smith – and wasn’t surprised.
“That’s him,” Olsen said. “He’s an aggressive player. I don’t think he’s a dirty player. I think he’s a good, hard-nosed, physical safety. Kind of toes that line, but he makes his presence felt and that’s what makes him a good player.”
Mitchell said he’d gone in low, but with Smith going down after an initial hit by safety Troy Polamalu, Mitchell’s shoulder struck Smith in the head.
Mitchell said Smith didn’t mention the play after the game. Instead, according to Mitchell, Smith hugged him and told him he’d see him when the teams meet again Nov. 2.
Next up for the Steelers is the “Sunday Night Football” matchup with the Panthers, who gave Mitchell his first chance to be a starter after he toiled in obscurity for four seasons in Oakland.
Mitchell, the Raiders’ second-round pick out of Ohio University in 2009, brought a swagger to the back end of the Panthers’ defense with his loud playing style and louder mouth.
After he was fined $7,875 for taunting on a play that ended St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford’s season last October, Mitchell said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was targeting certain players and pocketing the fines.
Mitchell backed up the talk most of the time. He started 14 games, tied for the team lead with four interceptions and had the most sacks (four) among the Panthers’ defensive backs.
“He’s a really talented guy,” Olsen said. “You’ve got to know where he’s at. He was a big part of our defense last year. Unfortunately he moved on and found himself in a place that kind of fits his mold.
“We know what kind of player he is.”
Mitchell, 27, wanted to stay with the Panthers, but they couldn’t come close to the Steelers’ five-year, $25 million offer.
“In my heart I thought I’d done enough to deserve the contract I was looking for,” he said. “And I definitely thought they were going to be the one to give it to me.”
Mitchell said it was a business decision by the Panthers, who were cap-strapped and preparing to put the franchise tag on defensive end Greg Hardy.
Plus, Mitchell liked the idea of playing for a tradition-rich organization in the AFC North, a gritty Rust Belt division that fit his rough-and-tumble style.
With the league’s crackdown on hits against quarterbacks and defenseless receivers, though, Mitchell said he has tweaked his tackling technique. He tries to set his sights on opposing players and wrap them up rather than obliterate them.
“I’m still going to try to make it a forceful impact,” he said. “The target is lower, but I still want you to feel it.”
Because the Steelers played last Thursday, Mitchell was able to watch the Panthers’ 24-7 win against Detroit on Sunday. He is a fan of speed-rusher Mario Addison, who had 2.5 sacks against the Lions while Hardy was deactivated.
He said there’s a big drop-off in the Panthers’ pass rush without Hardy, though.
“Absolutely,” Mitchell said. “He’s one of the better pass-rushers in the National Football League. I don’t think they’re going to get better not having him play. That would be ludicrous.”
Mitchell said the defense looks like it picked up where it left off in 2013 when the Panthers finished No. 2 behind Seattle in total defense and scoring defense.
While none of the Panthers’ receivers this season played with Mitchell, he had good things to say about Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery and rookie Kelvin Benjamin, whom he called a special talent.
“For them to have so much negativity talked about them early in the offseason, I think they’re a very good group,” Mitchell said. “You see the experience of some of the older guys that they brought in, but they’re performing at a high level for them.”
In a 2012 game against the Panthers when he was still in Oakland, Mitchell blitzed and appeared to hit quarterback Cam Newton late. Newton, who said Mitchell drove him into the ground, got up and bumped referee Jerome Boger, who penalized him for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Mitchell laughed when asked whether he would target Newton’s cracked ribs this week.
“I’m not targeting anywhere. But you can’t hit him in the leg and you can’t hit him in the head. I have to aim my target at his midsection,” he said. “Really, I want the football. As I’m getting older I’m kind of over hitting a guy real hard and they keep possession of the ball. I want to get the football out.”