If this were another year, Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton’s four sacks recorded during his first season in the NFL last season would probably seem even more impressive. That total would have placed him in the top three in sacks on the team in most years this decade, but for the 2017 season, during which the Steelers set a new franchise record in sacks, it was just tied for the fifth-most.
While it is granted that those four sacks came in just two games, his work as a blitzer was a regular presence in the Steelers’ defense last season, which is a bit of an oddity considering he was far from guaranteed to even make the roster heading into training camp.
The 5’9” slot cornerback technically started four games this past season, but was the team’s primary nickel cornerback throughout the year, and their only slot cornerback from the second same of the season onward. And he earned the job with his performance.
But he also credits the coaching staff for allowing him to maximize his abilities. He told the team’s website, “I think the coaches really used me the right way. My ability to blitz put pressure on the quarterback. Even if I am not blitzing, just the threat of me going opened it up for other guys”.
Hilton led the Steelers’ defensive backs in blitzes by a good margin, according to Pro Football Focus, crediting him with a whopping 76 blitzes over the course of the season, which averages out to a little under five blitzes per game.
Strong safety Sean Davis was the only player who came even close to half the number of Hilton’s blitzes, rushing the passer on 32 occasions, while Mike Mitchell had just three blitzes. Nobody else on the team, outside of Hilton and Davis, had even 10 blitzes from the secondary.
According to PFF’s accounting, Hilton turned those 76 rushes into four sacks, three hits, and eight hurries for a total of 15 pressures. The rest of the secondary combined to produce 12 additional pressures on the season, including one sack, recorded by Joe Haden on seven blitzes (the third-most on the team).
“At first, teams weren’t expecting a guy from the nickel to blitz as much as I did. It caught teams by surprise”, Hilton said. “Then they focused on me and the blitz is coming from another place and we got a big play. I feel like my threat is making opposing offenses a little worried”.
His highlight as a blitzer obviously game during the penultimate game of the regular season against the Houston Texans, during which he recorded three of his four sacks. The three-sack game was the first by a cornerback in NFL history, and only one of a few for any defensive back. Former Steelers safety and defensive backs coach Carnell Lake was another who had such a game. Troy Polamalu also did it against Houston.