Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton does not blink when asked what he most appreciates about Chiefs cornerback Terrance Mitchell.
His answer, literally, required no more than a half-second of thought.
“Competitiveness,” Sutton said Thursday. “He’s a highly competitive guy. He doesn’t blink, doesn’t back down. He had a couple flags there in New England, but it didn’t change how he played from an aggressiveness standpoint, and you have to appreciate that as a coach.”
Mitchell was indeed thrown at a ton in the Chiefs’ 42-27 win over New England in Week 1. The Patriots decided to stay away from star corner Marcus Peters, instead opting to attack the 25-year-old Mitchell, a nickel corner a year ago who has been bumped up to the No. 2 spot because of Steven Nelson’s core muscle injury. The Patriots had some success too, throwing at him nine times, drawing four penalties and completing two passes for a total of 76 yards.
At the end of the game, with the desperate Pats in an eight-point hole and trying to fight back into it, Tom Brady heaved a deep ball toward speedster Brandon Cooks, who used his 4.3 speed to blaze past Mitchell — a 4.6 guy — and track the ball.
Based on the way the game had gone for Mitchell, it seemed to be a solid choice. But the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Mitchell responded with one of the best plays of the night. He swung at the ball with his right hand and whiffed, but ended up deflecting it away with his left hand for a soul-sucking deflection that helped put away the defending champs.
Mitchell knew the play was big — he celebrated by folding his arms in a pose and pointing toward the sky.
There was no doubt, at least in his mind, he’d make that play.
“Mental toughness is damn near my driving force,” Mitchell said. “The game is 80 percent mental. If you’ve got it up top, everything else will follow.”
Mitchell considers his unwavering confidence his greatest strength, one that has helped him weather the storm of passes that have come his way against the Pats and Philadelphia Eagles, the Chiefs’ first two opponents in 2017. According to Pro Football Focus, Mitchell has been targeted a team-high 19 times this season and yielded just nine competions.
And though his 166 yards allowed is the third-most among all NFL corners, quarterbacks have a rating of 78.0 when throwing at him, compared to 101.6 for Peters (6 for 8 for 71 yards) and 117.6 for Gaines (6 for 11 for 105 yards and a touchdown).
Through it all, Mitchell — who has not allowed a touchdown this season — has remained undaunted. Watch the tape, and you can see him cajoling and tugging and yapping and celebrating with receivers. Catch a pass on him, he forgets it quickly.
It’s a mentality he developed as a youth in Sacramento, Calif., when his father, Terrance Sr., always made him play sports with the older kids. This toughened him up, Mitchell says, and taught him how to truly compete.
“Littlest dude out there,” Mitchell said. “(I did it) for now.”
An example: when Mitchell was 8, his AAU basketball team used a drill called The Pit, which featured one man on offense, one man on defense, going head to head from the top of the key. If the offensive player scored, another guy would come in, but the defender couldn’t get out of The Pit until he got a stop.
If you were small like Mitchell, and younger than everyone else to boot, it could be an absolute nightmare.
“I used to get scored on all the time — (I was) a little kid crying, everybody laughing,” Mitchell said. “(They were) pretty much picking on me. But that, right there, made me competitive.
“You were either going to be in there ’til you quit, or you get yourself out. And you can’t quit.”
Tired of bigger kids backing him down, Mitchell learned to use his quickness to his advantage and go for the steal. When he started having success doing that, Mitchell learned a lot about himself.
“After so many losses, you just get mad,” Mitchell said. “That’s either in you, or it’s not.”
Mitchell credits basketball experiences that like one for helping him play cornerback. He found the movements similar, and all the man-to-man press defense he played in basketball translated to football.
“I’m a point guard out there playing defense against receivers,” Mitchell said.
That scrappiness has served Mitchell well with the Chiefs, who play lots of man coverage on the outside and rely on their corners to make plays on the ball. It’s a trait Sutton first noticed in Mitchell last year, when Mitchell — who had been released six times in his four-year NFL career — was toiling away on the practice squad. It’s how he earned a promotion to regular action in December, and became a revelation of sorts as a nickel corner during the Chiefs’ stretch run.
“It was the way he practiced against our offense,” Sutton said. “He kept clawing, he kept fighting. That’s even harder because there’s certain things you can and can’t do in practice than you can do in a game. But I think all the coaches were impressed with his tenacity.”
Sutton also liked Mitchell’s on-field aggressiveness, which isn’t just about pressing the receivers, though Mitchell loves doing that. It’s more about consistently attacking routes and receivers, which is not only something the Chiefs covet in the corners, but an on-field mindset Mitchell can’t turn off thanks to his background.
“You can’t play on your heels back there — the quarterbacks are took good and they’re too accurate,” Sutton said. “You’re trying to contest all throws — that’s the big thing. And whether you’re playing up tight on them or playing off on them, you’re trying to contest it.”
Receivers also note that Mitchell has very strong hands, which he uses to knock them off their routes.
“He’s one of the stronger DBs that we have,” said Chiefs receiver Gehrig Dieter, who faced Mitchell regularly on the practice squad. “If he gets his hands on you, it’s basically over.”
The three other teams Mitchell played for before arriving in Kansas City all liked his skill-set, but each eventually let him go. In Kansas City, the coaching staff lets him press more than he did in those other places, and Mitchell particularly took to the coaching of secondary coach Al Harris, a former Pro Bowl corner whose bump-and-run style gives him credibility with his players.
“In the right system, you can flourish,” Mitchell said. “In the wrong system, it can hold you back a bit. Al was a press cornerback, so he can kind of relate to the things I like to do. He was able to talk to me and give me some tips. He made my game better and had confidence in me.”
The Chiefs have expressed that by leaving Mitchell in there against the onslaught of passes headed his way. His workload will fluctuate week-to-week, depending on how aggressive teams want to be with Peters.
Help will likely come in Week 9, when Nelson — a starter a year ago — is eligible to return from injured reserve. But in the meantime, if teams want to continue to attack him, trust and believe that Mitchell is just fine with that.
“They’re going to help me show the world who I am,” Mitchell said.