A lot of players were able to step up on defense today for the Pittsburgh Steelers in helping to hold the Ravens to just nine points, some of which came aided by a questionable turnover—at best triggered by absurd rules about what constitutes a catch—but the highlight goes to the player with a couple of firsts.
That would be Mike Hilton, the 2016 undrafted free agent who failed to hook up on a 53-man roster a year ago. He eventually found his way to the Steelers’ practice squad late last year, and less than a year later, he entered his first accrued season in the NFL as a starter in the slot cornerback role.
Today, he really showed why, notable in notching both his first sack and his first interception of his career, while also adding three tackles. His interception was one of just two for the Steelers’ defense on the day, of three takeaways, while he joined in with three other players to record a total of four sacks against the Ravens’ Joe Flacco.
Hilton’s sack came on the opening drive for the Ravens in the second half. He was sent on a blitz on second down that helped to influence an incompletion, and he came back for more on third and 10. While he did not get to Flacco right away, pressure from other defenders allowed him to come back in and clean things up, forcing a three and out in the process.
Later, he helped to seal the game when he benefited from a deep pass defensed from Ryan Shazier that sent the ball up into the air, coming down with the ball on fourth and 12, returning the ball 19 yards to the Ravens’ side of the field. He was in good position on an incompletion on the third-down play a snap before, so the pick felt something akin to karmic justice.
It has been a long uphill battle for Hilton, a 5’9” undrafted free agent out of Ole Miss, but he has spent the past half a year or so working his way all the way up the depth chart from possible practice squad candidate, to longshot, to possible depth player, and finally, to starter.
He showed throughout spring practices and in training camp a penchant for making plays on the ball, either breaking them up or picking them off, and that finally turned up in a game. He had shown throughout the preseason to be an effective blitzer.
Of course, everybody loves an underdog, and I think Hilton would qualify. Going from practice squad to starter from one year to the next is a significant jump for a player in his position. And he is continuing to be active on special teams, recording a tackle on a kickoff to boot.