If there was any question regarding Earl Mitchell's ability to perform as a starter, the twenty-five year old's performance in the Texans 23-17 win at Minnesota put that to rest. The nose tackle, who started just three games in 2012, recorded three tackles for a loss and a sack in Houston's preseason debut. On the second drive of the game, Mitchell had two back-to-back plays on defense that both yielded a loss of yards for the Vikings.
"I'm just taking advantage of the opportunities that the offense has given me," Mitchell said of his ability to penetrate the backfield. "They made a lot of mistakes and I was just definitely capitalizing on that. When offenses make those mistakes, it's on me to make sure I make those plays and make sure I'm in the backfield."
Mitchell, now entering his fourth season with the Texans, amassed 104 tackles, 55 of which were solo, and three passes defensed in the 2012 season. In the postseason, he has a career total of 10 tackles, one sack, and one pass defensed. Mitchell watched himself on film last year and knew what he needed to improve in order to get to the next level.
"Just overall, I would look at some games and then I would just notice I might have been like stuck on a block here or there," said Mitchell. "I might not have gotten as good penetration. I kind of just noticed my position on the field and just basically got an overall feel for just playing better and things I could do better, so that's just something I want to continue to do."
As nose tackle, Mitchell says his position commands double teams. His primary job is to take pressure off of J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith, getting offensive linemen to focus on him.
"I'm just trying to get rushed. The more penetration I get, at that position, you are playing the middle of the field," Mitchell said. "The offensive lineman have no choice but to double-team you. If you're just kind of standing at the line of scrimmage, most of the time they are going to go look for J.J. They are going to go look for Antonio."
When Watt and Smith are the target of double-teaming, it is up to Mitchell to step up for the defense and make big plays.
"You definitely do get the opportunities when you have guys like Antonio and J.J. next to you," he said of his teammates. "Sometimes they might double-team them two and give me the single block in the middle. I just have to take advantage of those plays and that's really what I am looking forward to."
As for whether or not Mitchell will be crafting his own sack celebration like Watt and Smith, he says he does not have any plans for that right now.
"I'm pretty straightforward," Mitchell laughed. "I was thinking about what I would do or what type of celebration I would have but I just thought I would just keep it simple and just play ball because it's not my style."
For the 2013 season, Mitchell will gladly accept the responsibility that comes along with being a starter between two Pro Bowl defensive ends.
"Being a starter on this team is definitely a lot on my shoulders." Mitchell said. "I really want our team to win and I definitely want to be a key contributor in how we get to the Super Bowl."