On paper, it was a good game for Mike Hilton, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ first-year nickel cornerback. Against the Patriots, he is credited with five tackles and two passes defensed. While those numbers are accurate, the film shows how easily that could have looked much worse.
Still, it was a solid performance from Hilton, who has been one of the most important additions to the team this season, in all three phases. The fact that he has basically been a starter since opening day just says how much confidence the team has in him. So let’s look back at his game against New England.
Early in the game, the first time he was targeted was on first and 10, lined up against Phillip Dorsett in the slot. He had tight coverage on the former Colts wide receiver and immediately made the tackle after a four-yard reception, which was considered a stop.
Later in the quarter, a sack put the Patriots in an ugly second and 18. Tom Brady was under pressure once again on the play, but it was the coverage that ultimately prevented him from being able to get rid of the ball. Hilton initially showed blitz, but his coverage on James White was important, as the Steelers have more than once lost players in the flat in similar situations this year.
At other times, however, Hilton got a bit of help from Brady and others for not recognizing things as quickly as they should have. One example of that would be the should-have-been touchdown to the third-string tight end in the second quarter. The delay buys the cornerback the time he needs to make an admittedly excellent recovery and was able to break up the pass. No harm, no foul.
Into the third quarter, Hilton really got away with what probably should have been a touchdown. Watch this replay carefully, as Rob Gronkowski bobbled the football before Hilton was able to recover and try to play the pocket. He may have prevented the tight end from attempting to double-catch the ball, but ordinarily, for Gronkowski, this is six points.
Later in the quarter, on a first-down play, the nickel corner was sent on a blitz. The play was a designed screen to the right, and his presence forced Brady to throw a poorly-arced ball to White that was out of the running back’s reach.
Finally, late in the game, Brady had a shot at Danny Amendola down the seam from 21 yards out. The wide receiver beat Hilton off the line of scrimmage and got behind him. A better throw results in first and goal at worst, and likely a touchdown.
In no way is this meant to disparage Hilton, who is rightly a fan favorite, but these are the plays that were put on tape, so they are up for discussion. The Ole Miss product has been a great find, and these sorts of close calls happen frequently. He’s been their most consistent defensive back all season, but he did get a couple of lucky shakes on Sunday.