2017 Camp Questions: Will Mike Hilton Start In The Slot On Sunday?

The journey toward the Super Bowl is now well under way with the Pittsburgh Steelers back practicing at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, still informally referred to as the ‘South Side’ facility. With the regular season standing in their way on the path to a Lombardi, there will be questions for them to answer along the way.

We have asked and answered a lot of questions during the preseason and through training camp, but much of the answer-seeking ends in the regular season, and teams simply have to make do with what they have available to them. Still, there will always be questions for us.

You can rest assured that we have the questions, and we will be monitoring the developments in the regular season and beyond as they develop, looking for the answers as we evaluate the makeup of the Steelers on their way back to the Super Bowl, after reaching the AFC Championship game last season for the first time in more than half a decade.

Question: Will Mike Hilton be the Steelers’ starting nickel cornerback when the regular season opens?

First of all, if this happens, a hat tip is in order to Dale Lolley of the Observer-Reporter, who, as I wrote about I think last week, predicted that Mike Hilton would open the regular season ahead of William Gay in the slot.

According to reports from practice yesterday, the first-year Hilton was indeed taking first-team slot snaps ahead of Gay, who checked in for the dime package. So the question that we are now left with ourselves is this: are the Steelers just tinkering and seeing what it looks like, or will they really open up the season with him in the slot, and the veteran demoted?

There is some obvious baggage behind the move. Starting with the third preseason game, in which Hilton and Coty Sensabaugh got some rotational work with the first-team personnel, Gay was suddenly playing an active role on special teams, which he would have to do if he is not playing a starting role on defense. He has also been taking some emergency snaps at safety. Both of these go into the ‘the more you can do’ folder in the ‘please keep me on the roster’ file cabinet.

The biggest reason that this is so believable—outside of, you know, the fact that he’s taking first-team snaps in practice—is because he showed during the preseason the ability to play the run, which is crucial for the Steelers’ slot cornerback to be able to do. He also was adept on the blitz from that position, which is another wrinkle they are looking to exploit this season.

Those who have been waiting to see Gay demoted are legion, and they may be getting their wish. But he likely will still see playing time in the dime defense, which will probably be more prevalent this season than any other since 2013, which not coincidentally was the year Vince Williams was thrust into a starting role by virtue of injury. Only that time it was a third safety rather than a fourth cornerback who came on.

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