PITTSBURGH — Mike Mitchell brought bluster and a physical if occasionally volatile presence to the Pittsburgh secondary. William Gay was a steady hand and contributed a decade of consistency to the Steelers. Robert Golden had the hard-to-quantify intangibles that made him a special teams ace and reliable backup.
And now they’re gone.
The two-time defending AFC North champions released all three players Wednesday, signaling a shift in direction in a defensive backfield that faltered in key moments last season.
The Steelers won 13 games but also allowed Tom Brady to light them up late in a mid-December loss that determined home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. They couldn’t stop Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles from orchestrating a playoff upset at Heinz Field that brought a season filled with Super Bowl expectations to an emphatic and sudden halt.
The moves freed up about $7 million in cap space, money Pittsburgh can now use in part to retool around veteran cornerback Joe Haden, promising if erratic cornerback Artie Burns, and safety Sean Davis.
Mitchell spent four uneven seasons with the Steelers, who made a rare splurge in free agency when they brought him in from Carolina in 2014, signing him to a five-year, $25 million deal. Mitchell picked off four passes and recovered four fumbles in Pittsburgh. He also reined in the questionable hits that cost him tens of thousands of dollars in fines earlier in his career.
He also served as a firebrand for a secondary in transition following the retirement of stars Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor. Yet he would occasionally go for the big hit when a routine tackle would have sufficed, an issue that popped up at inopportune times.
Gay’s departure leaves quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as the only player from Pittsburgh’s last Super Bowl victory nearly a decade ago. Gay carved out a niche as a reliable and versatile defensive back. He has played in 176 consecutive games while spending 10 of his 11 seasons with the Steelers. Gay’s playing time decreased last season as rookie Mike Hilton took over his spot as the nickel back.
Golden filled in at various spots in the secondary, though his real impact was on special teams, a unit he served as the captain from 2014-16.
The moves came a month after Tom Bradley replaced Carnell Lake as defensive backs coach. Lake stepped down shortly after the playoff loss to Jacksonville to spend more time in California to watch his son play high school football.
Pittsburgh, as has long been its custom, stayed quiet on the first day of the league’s new year. The Steelers have focused most of their work over the last six weeks trying to get under the 2018 salary cap, something they’ve done largely through restructuring existing contracts.
While Pittsburgh has depth concerns at safety and inside linebacker, it’s likely the Steelers will rely heavily on the draft to address those needs. Davis and J.J. Wilcox are the only safeties on the current roster with serious NFL experience. Pro Bowl linebacker Ryan Shazier has already been ruled out for 2018 as he recovers from spinal surgery in December.