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Terrance Mitchell is changing the Chiefs defense at the perfect time

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Many events can alter the course of a football season. This can be in an easily identifiable way or a way that is relatively predictable to have a big impact (like having a star player go down to injury, or perhaps having a star player return FROM injury). But sometimes, it happens in weird ways that no one really saw coming. Terrance Mitchell has been the latter for the Chiefs.

Throughout the 2016-17 season, cornerback has been a position of concern for the Chiefs. While Marcus Peters has played well and Steven Nelson has made big strides in his second year, the Chiefs were consistently left wanting at the (crucial in today’s NFL) third CB spot. Phillip Gaines was once again injured and hasn’t played remotely as effectively as in years past, D.J. White doesn’t seem ready yet and Kenneth Acker didn’t distinguish himself from the crowd.

For much of the season, the Chiefs struggled to defend the pass as whoever was playing that third corner spot got picked on. This came to a head against the Broncos in Week 12, when Gaines struggled and was repeatedly victimized by Emmanuel Sanders and Trevor Siemian. With the ridiculous Falcons offense looming, the Chiefs needed to find an answer if they wanted to avoid giving up 70 points on the road.

That answer came in the form of some guy wearing No. 39 seeing almost half the snaps against the Atlanta Falcons. His name is Terrance Mitchell, and I can honestly say that until the Falcons game I literally did not know who he was (and I write multiple articles about the Chiefs a week). That’s how out-of-the-blue his appearance on the defense was.

And what’s more, Mitchell acquitted himself pretty well against a tough Atlanta group, earning playing time four days later against Oakland on a nationally televised game that had MASSIVE implications for both teams. And that game is when he went from “who was that guy?” to “holy smokes, who IS that guy?”

Sealing a game with great coverage is bound to endear you to fans, as well as coaching staff. Mitchell has been a fixture on the defense since the Atlanta game, playing outside corner when the Chiefs utilize three cornerbacks (with Nelson sliding inside). And by and large he’s impressed fans with his physical play and knack for contesting the ball.

Given Mitchell’s likely importance in the upcoming playoff game against the Steelers (he didn’t play a single snap against PIT earlier in the year, as White was victimized repeatedly with Gaines hurt), I thought it time to go back and review every coverage snap for Mitchell and try to get an idea if what we’re seeing is a flash in the pan or something that has a chance at continuing. If you don’t know how I review corners, click here. In sum, it’s basically looking at every snap on all-22 and, on snaps he’s actually in man coverage (or in zone on a single receiver with how the routes play out), I chart either a success or a fail. My ideal for a corner is succeeding over 60 percent of the time to be at least decent (remember, playing corner is HARD in the NFL. Failures are frequent even for good CBs).

With that said, let’s look at Mitchell’s numbers, then talk about what he shows on film.

As you can see, Mitchell was able to come in with a pretty high success percentage despite playing a number of very tough opponents (ATL, OAK, and DEN all have a tough group of receivers to defend). Additionally, he was able to defend (I don’t define that as just passes swatted aside, but also as passes caused to be incomplete by a perfectly timed hit or contesting by the CB) nearly as many passes as he allowed completions. That’s a very unsustainable thing to do (at least in my experience) over time, but highly impressive.

Additionally, it should be noted the TYPE of catches Mitchell was allowing. Through five games, the longest pass that he allowed to be completed was 26 yards. The majority of the completions against Mitchell were under 10 yards. It’s difficult, especially as a young corner, to not get burned deep at least a few times. Mitchell was able to avoid giving up big plays, which was a massive change for that side of the defense.

Now again, keep in mind that what we’re seeing here is a small sample size. We’ve been burned by that before. However, Mitchell has played more than competently over the course of the last five weeks, he’s played close to exceptionally well.

Mitchell has two primary traits that he flashes time and again. The first and arguably most important is the ability to contest passes.

A consistent weakness with many corners who are sticky in coverage (able to stay with the receivers in and out of breaks and down the field) is failing to realize when the pass is coming and how to properly contest it. Keep in mind that it’s impossible (usually) to have perfect coverage. The idea is to make it as difficult as humanly possible for the quarterback and receiver to make a connection by being as much in the way as you can (simple, eh? Oversimplified? Well... yeah. But still).

Mitchell’s strongest quality is doing just that. If he is anywhere near the receiver as the ball is arriving, he almost always makes it a miserable experience for the receiver to make the catch. He hits aggressively and is very good at attacking where the ball is arriving. I can’t tell if he’s got slightly quicker reflexes than you generally see or if he’s just better at reading what the WR is doing (watching the hands, etc) and reacting to it than most young corners. But however he does it, that’s a valuable trait that he’s repeatedly shown. It’s a strength he shares with Marcus Peters (though he doesn’t seem to have Peters’s knack for reading routes to jump them) as well as Steven Nelson. Between the three of them, almost every pass you see completed in man coverage is contested well. That’s a big deal.

Another trait that Mitchell possesses is quick feet and agility, which gives him the ability to start, stop, and change directions suddenly in a way that’s necessary when trying to stick with NFL receivers on shorter routes.

Mitchell uses his feet nicely the majority of the time and doesn’t seem to take a lot of false steps. This allows him to stick around as receivers break inside/outside. Mitchell was actually the combine leader in the 3-cone drill among corners in 2014 when he came into the league, which reflects his quickness and agility.

Mitchell’s feet aren’t perfect (he does occasionally get turned around), but his natural fluidity and quickness allows him to compensate pretty quickly and he doesn’t tend to lose his balance when that happens (through 5 games I saw him stumble once, and stumbling is more common than you think among NFL corners as they try to track extremely fast human beings). He’s got decent hips (that’s always a weird thing to type, but it’s true) and shows no issues getting rotated to turn and run any direction with a receiver.

I additionally appreciate Mitchell’s physical coverage at the line of scrimmage (he presses as often and as aggressively as any other corner on the roster, if not more). He does have a tendency to get grabby and clutch wide receivers early in the route, especially if he loses a step on them. However, I prefer corners with this tendency. You’re not always going to get called for that kind of thing, and it’s a good way to prevent potential big plays from getting away from you. The key is picking the right moments and trying your best to stay in front of the receiver, which Mitchell does pretty well.

Mitchell was asked to play zone coverage more than I would have thought, particularly against San Diego. I actually really like his instincts in zone coverage, and his knack for contesting catches came in handy more than once when in zone.

I love it when secondary players are able to discern whether or not to play the ball or the receiver on a bang-bang play like that. By the time Mitchell closes, the ball has essentially arrived and there’s no chance at swatting it away. So Mitchell instead focuses his attention on the receiver and delivers an absolute shot, causing the stunned receiver (he was under the impression defensive backs aren’t allowed to hit people any more in the NFL, which is understandable) to drop the pass.

Speaking of hitting, that’s a solid area of Mitchell’s game. I wouldn’t call him a great tackler (like, say, Brandon Flowers), but he’s extremely willing to hit people and doesn’t shy away from ball carriers. He also is good at bringing down receivers immediately open them catching the ball, an underrated trait he shares with Nelson that helps keep big plays from getting away from them.

If I were to name areas of concern for Mitchell, there would be two: route reading and top-end speed. From what I can see, the times Mitchell gets beat is when he gets caught guessing wrong on a route and the WR makes a cut he appears unprepared for. It doesn’t happen a ton, but it happens often enough to make me think he needs more experience reading receivers during their routes. Given the ability he’s shown to read them while the ball is in there air, I think this is a correctable flaw.

The other concern I have with Mitchell is whether he’s got enough speed to keep up on the occasions he DOES lose at the line of scrimmage and isn’t in the WR’s hip pocket immediately. That can be fatal against faster receivers and they’ll just run away from you on a go route.

Now, given that Mitchell has yet to give up a big play like that, perhaps I’m just being overly cautious. Because it’s not like he’s slow.

It’s wort noting that he’s able to keep up with a very fast wide receiver here. Of course, this isn’t a go route, and the change of directions multiple times throughout the route may actually help Mitchell keep pace (rather than leaving him behind as the route anticipates). We’re going to need more game film before I can really say whether Mitchell’s top-end speed is an issue. There are plenty of corners without great speed (like Marcus Peters) who are able to still play very good coverage due to instincts on routes, quickness, and the ability to play the ball. Mitchell appears to have the tools to do likewise.

Overall, I was quite impressed with Mitchell, after fearing that he would look less capable on a snap-by-snap basis. The only game I would say he struggled was in spots against Denver, where Emmanuel Sanders (he gives everyone problems) was able to beat him a bit more than I’d like. That said, he did demonstrably more against Sanders than many corners I’ve seen matched up against him, which is positive.

We won’t really know who Terrance Mitchell is until he’s got more experience under his belt, and I’ve been burned before by corners who looked solid in small sample sizes. But Mitchell absolutely flashes the skillset to be a solid corner, particularly a physical mindset, exceptional quickness and (most importantly) a knack for contesting the ball as it arrives.

Hopefully he’ll be an important piece to solving the Pittsburgh offense. So far, he’s been a major difference maker in how the pass defense has performed.