There are players who make their way onto the roster because of what they are able to do on special teams. And then there are players who make their way off of special teams because of what they are able to do at their natural positions. And it seems as though Pittsburgh Steelers first-year cornerback Mike Hilton has reached that point.
As of last week at least, the only unit on which the 5’9” slot starter is being used is the kick coverage unit after he entered the season as their primary gunner on the punt coverage team opposite Darrius Heyward-Bey.
But given that he is now the unquestioned full-time slot starter, it’s no surprise that they found others to take his job. On Sunday, it was a mixture of J.J. Wilcox and rookie cornerback Brian Allen as part of a relatively significant shakeup of the entire unit.
Recall also that tight end Xavier Grimble was both a healthy and unnecessary scratch Sunday as the third tight end, and I can’t help but wonder if this might not become the norm as they continue to focus on the utilization of linemen as their potential third tight end behind Jesse James and Vance McDonald.
Grimble was the Steelers’ right wing on the punt coverage unit, but has now been replaced by Sean Davis, who also held that job last season, even though he is now starting. Evidently they feel it is a tame enough job for him. Artie Burns has been used as a starting jammer all season as well.
As for Wilcox, he has become a fixture on the punt return unit, serving on the left side as the edge player who also serves as a vice jammer when necessary. As mentioned, he also split time with Allen as the gunner on punt coverage opposite Heyward-Bey.
But I find it odd that Allen was even active for the game, when the only injury was Ramon Foster. The Steelers deactivated two special teamers in Grimble and Arthur Moats in order to give hats to Allen and, of course, James Harrison.
It almost leads me to believe that the Steelers intend to see Allen have a regular role on special teams, who has worked both as a gunner and a jammer in the three games in which he has been active this season.
He only played three snaps on Sunday against the Chiefs, and was inactive last week, but he played five snaps against the Ravens, and six against the Vikings back in week two. Both Wilcox and Allen give the team a big and athletic body type for the gunner/jammer role.
Either way, their combined efforts have enabled the coaching staff to take away some of Hilton’s responsibilities so that he can focus almost exclusively on defense now, with just one special teams unit to worry about as a perimeter player on kick coverage. I’ll have more to say about the punt coverage unit in a film study tomorrow.