Fowler: Panthers safety Mike Mitchell has assumed large role for NFL’s No. 3 defense

sfowler@charlotteobserver.comOctober 19, 2013 

  • CHERRY PICKING

    Three notes about the Panthers and interceptions:

    1. The Panthers are No.1 in the NFL in the percentage of opponents’ passes they have intercepted. They are picking off 4.7 percent of opponents’ passes, having grabbed eight in 171 passing attempts.

    2. Mike Mitchell has three of those eight interceptions to lead Carolina after five games. No Panthers player had more than two interceptions in the entire 2012 season.

    3. St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford has only three interceptions so far this season, compared to 13 touchdown passes

The Carolina Panthers knew they were getting a player in Mike Mitchell who liked to live on the edge – his questionable hit against Cam Newton in 2012 was evidence of that.

What they didn’t know was that Mitchell, now the team’s starting free safety, also had a knack for interceptions.

“We’re finding out very quickly he’s a ball hawk,” Panther coach Ron Rivera said.

That ball hawk has had three interceptions in the Panthers’ past two games and will go for another Sunday in the Panthers’ 1 p.m. home game against St. Louis. But three is already one more interception than Mitchell racked up in his first four NFL seasons at Oakland combined.

With the Raiders, Mitchell was always a backup. “I got hurt early and gave a guy the chance to Wally Pipp me, and he did,” Mitchell said.

That analogy – to the New York Yankees first baseman who was replaced by Lou Gehrig, who then started 2,130 games in a row – gives you some idea of what it’s like to have a conversation with Mitchell. He is quick-witted and more multi-dimensional than you might expect of a safety known primarily for hard hits.

Mitchell is a reader who says he’s studying the Bible – specifically the book of Romans. He likes movies – he loved “42” and wants to go see “Captain Phillips.” He said he almost always passes up teammates’ invitations to go out on the town.

“I’m only 26, but I live the life of a 40-year-old,” Mitchell said.

Fortunately he plays like he’s 26. Mitchell has become an NFL starter for the first time with the Panthers. Once Charles Godfrey went down with a season-ending injury in the Panthers’ second game, Carolina entrusted Mitchell to switch from strong to free safety and to make the defensive calls for the secondary.

A self-described “huge, huge loner” off the field, on it Mitchell has become a loud leader for the defensive backs on it. He does not lack for confidence.

“Mike is too smart for his own good,” said Captain Munnerlyn, Mitchell’s defensive backfield teammate, with a smile. “He thinks he knows everything. But he’s a great football player.”

Said Rivera: “Mike is very emphatic with those checks (to align the defense.) If he’s wrong, we’re all wrong. We’ll play them together, though. But for the most part he’s usually right. When and if he is wrong, the best thing is because he’s taken such command … we play whatever’s been called.”

Mitchell grew up in Fort Thomas, Ky., not far from Cincinnati. “I’ve been a Bluebird, a Bobcat, a Raider and now a Panther,” Mitchell said. “I do best when I’m part of the cat family.”

After playing in high school for the Highlands Bluebirds, Mitchell was modestly recruited. The biggest school going after him was Kentucky. He went on an official visit to a football game in 2004, where the Wildcats got beaten by Ohio University.

“I was like, ‘Where the heck is Ohio University?’ “ Mitchell recalled.

He soon found out that Ohio University was in Athens, Ohio, and he ended up going to school there and playing well for the Bobcats and coach Frank Solich. Mitchell was the rare player out of the Mid-American Conference to get picked in the second round of the NFL draft after not getting invited to the scouting combine. Oakland chose him No.47 overall in 2009 after he ran a 4.39 40-yard dash at Ohio’s Pro Day.

But he got stuck behind safety Tyvon Branch in Oakland, playing mostly on special teams and in passing situations.

His hit against Newton came last December. After Newton released the ball, Mitchell hit him and “drove me into the ground,” as Newton would say later. Newton protested Mitchell should be flagged, but he wasn’t. Instead, the quarterback yelled at and bumped referee Jerome Boger while complaining, got penalized 15 yards and was later fined by the NFL.

“Cam was just a young player,” Mitchell said. “OK, it was maybe a little questionable. But no flag, no harm, no foul. The first thing Cam said to me when I got here, though, was ‘Hey, you’re that guy we got from Oakland? You cost me like $10,000.’”

Mitchell does sometimes draw flags for his hits, which sometimes do border on being late. “Sometimes I do play on the edge,” he said. “I’ve been trying to tone that back lately because I’ve been flagged a couple of times. But I can’t help it.”

Said defensive end Greg Hardy of Mitchell: “A good word to describe him is ‘attack.’... He’s my type of guy. I love him. I don’t have to worry about him pulling up on the sideline. I know the play is going to get finished and if it’s not, me and Luke (Kuechly) are going to be right there. That’s three guys who play out of control.”

Mitchell credits Hardy and Kuechly, among others, for those three interceptions the past two weeks. All three came on quarterback overthrows and included quarterback pressure, along with some great coverage by Kuechly and Munnerlyn underneath.

Panther defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, whose Carolina defense is ranked No.3 in total yardage allowed, said of Mitchell: “The thing I love about Mike is he’s a physical presence for us. … As for the interceptions, that’s an aspect of his game that has really improved since he came here in the spring.”

Mitchell’s stay in Carolina could be fleeting. He signed a one-year contract for a million dollars in early 2013 – pocket change for an NFL starter. If he keeps playing this well, he will be in position to command more money in 2014, from the Panthers or someone else.

For now, though, he’s just happy to start again.

“Oakland was frustrating for sure,” Mitchell said. “There’s a certain sense of pride you get knowing you’re a starter. I cherish that. I covet that. It’s something I don’t take for granted, especially since I didn’t have it for four years. It took me four years to get it back. I don’t want to let it go now.”

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