There is a surprising number of Pittsburgh Steelers fans who want the team to move on from William Gay, preferring to see him off the 53-man roster in a few days. I don’t suspect that they are going to get their wish. But they may be partially appeased if the prognostication of one beat writer is to be believed.
Writing for the Observer-Reporter, Dale Lolley wrote in an article yesterday that he believes the Steelers are preparing to have first-year cornerback Mike Hilton in the slot this season as their nickel back, and that they will bring Gay onto the field when they are in the dime defense.
I would imagine that most believed that this would work the other way around, and I would be placed squarely in that group. Hilton has very little experience working against starting wide receivers even in practice, after all, while Gay has not necessarily fallen off a cliff.
Still, they opened last season with a rookie safety as their starting nickel back, so whatever happens this season would have to be viewed as an improvement. Because Artie Burns was not ready to play at the start of the season, they had to use Gay as an outside cornerback.
Lolley does provide a sound rationale for why they might favor Hilton over Gay in the slot to start the season. “That defense would give the team a lot of blitzing options as Hilton has shown a nice ability to get there from the slot”, he writes, “and Gay is savvy enough to do so as well or help cover for inside linebacker Ryan Shazier if he blitzes”.
Hilton had great success as a blitzer this preseason, recording a sack and two hits, one of which very nearly produced a safety by forcing an errant pass, if only it had not tipped off the hand of Johnny Maxey en route to falling incomplete near no receiver in particular.
Importantly, the Ole Miss product has more than ably displayed his willingness and ability to play the run. He has had multiple tackles against the run that have spared the Steelers of giving up a first down, doing more than simply not shying away from the contact of that aspect of the position but actually seeking it out.
Earlier this offseason, defensive backs coach Carnell Lake talked a bit about Hilton, and he drew comparisons between the young player and the dime cornerback that the Steelers used when he was playing. At this point, it seems likely that he is at least going to be their dime back, and that the dime—with four cornerbacks, rather than three safeties—is going to be a more frequent package than it has been in a long time.
Whether or not Lolley’s guess is right remains to be sees, but we won’t have too long to wait, as the Steelers’ season opener is not too far away on September 10 in Cleveland. At a bare minimum, I think it’s safe to say at this point that Hilton is going to be on the 53-man roster.