Outside linebacker Kawika Mitchell was one the major offseason acquisitions by the Buffalo Bills. On Sunday, he showed why the Bills coveted him.
Mitchell was having a relatively quiet first half, which was overshadowed by a power outage. He was pretty dormant in the third quarter, too. But oh, what a fourth quarter he had.
Mitchell broke out with a monster fourth quarter, providing the necessary jolt to help push the Bills past the San Diego Chargers, 23-14.
He was all over the field in the final 15 minutes, whether it was stopping the run at the line of scrimmage, defending passes in the secondary or harassing the quarterback.
With the Bills clinging to a 20-14 lead, Mitchell delivered three big plays that stopped all three of the Chargers' fourth-quarter possessions:
*He held running back Darren Sproles to a one-yard gain on third-and-two to force a punt. The 5-foot-6, 181-pound Sproles has excellent quickness and once he took a pitch from quarterback Philip Rivers, a first down seemed like a certainty. But Mitchell shows some pretty good wheels himself by shedding left tackle Marcus McNeill's block, and chasing Sproles to the sideline. A diving tackle triped up Sproles, who fell out of bounds a yard short of the first down marker.
"It's funny, because when I was chasing him, I was like, 'I got this guy, I've got him,' and I got to a point where I was like, 'I'm going to have to dive if I want to get him' " Mitchell said. "He's a fast guy. He's got a lot of talent. That's why I've got a nice little scratch on my arm just from reaching out and getting him. But it was big to get him before he got the first down." His interception of a Rivers pass in the end zone and 32-yard return set up an insurance field goal. Mitchell is on the right side of the defensive formation, but shows good range by dropping back and sliding to the middle of the field to get into the passing lane to pick off the throw intended for tight end Antonio Gates. Replays show strong safety Bryan Scott had good coverage, but the Chargers would have had a couple of more shots at a touchdown if not for Mitchell's play of the game.
"If we ran the play 10 more times, I'd throw 10 more interceptions," Rivers said. "[Mitchell] was the backside middle linebacker and usually you don't have to worry about him, but he flew over there and made the play."
*Mitchell forced a fumble while sacking Rivers. The Bills recovered and the offense burned off the last three minutes. On second and 10, the Bills have a three-man defensive line with end Chris Kelsay playing linebacker. The scheme works because Kelsay's inside rush occupies right guard Mike Goff and end Copeland Bryan's upfield charge draws the focus of right tackle Jeromy Clary. That created a huge hole for Mitchell, who looped behind Kelsay and has a clean shot at Rivers because Sproles leaked out of the backfield as an outlet receiver. The impact of Mitchell's helmet hitting Rivers' right arm caused the fumble that Bryan recovered.
"As always is the case in these games, every play matters but there were a couple of huge ones, clearly," Bills coach Dick Jauron said. "Kawika's interception and then the turnover late in the game, just huge plays."
Mitchell also made a couple of other nice plays during the fourth quarter:
*He blitzed up the middle and drove Goff into the backfield. Realizing he wouldn't get to Rivers, Mitchell leaped in the air to bat down a first-down pass intended for receiver Vincent Jackson, who was open along the Chargers' sideline.
*He pressured Rivers into an incompletion after blitzing up the middle. It's a six-man rush and Mitchell isn't picked up as he blitzes up past an offensive lineman because the center, right guard and right tackle are occupied by other defenders. Running back LaDainian Tomlinson steps up to pick up Mitchell, who brushes Tomlinson to the side and hits Rivers, forcing a wobbly pass to hit the turf well short of target.
Mitchell's playmaking ability is not just due to his physical talent. He's a student of the game, one who studies film intensely, looking for the little weaknesses he can exploit on Sunday.
"That comes with age," he said. "You gain some experience and try to find a play that you might be able to jump on and make a big play on and make a difference in the game."
Mitchell was truly a difference-maker against the Chargers. The Bills hope he'll have a repeat performance next Sunday in Miami.
Mitchell said the Bills' defense puts him and his teammates in position to make big plays. The players just have to make them.
"The way we practice, the way we move around, we're in pretty good condition and we work hard for those situations and just having some of those guys we have in place," he said. "I've said this since Day One, we have a lot of hungry guys on this team. When we do things the way we did [Sunday], it really shows."