It didn’t take long for Mike Hilton to establish himself as not only one of the best, but also one of the most important players on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense, even if he wasn’t on the field for every snap as their nickel defender when he made the team in 2017 as a college free agent.
First-year defensive backs coach Tom Bradley, however, didn’t quite realize how important he was to the team until he saw it for himself first-hand, he told Joe Rutter. Bradley, who held many posts over the course of a long college career, primarily with Penn State, replaced Carnell Lake after seven seasons.
“I didn’t realize how valuable he is to this team and all of the things he does for us on defense, not only in terms of his play but his leadership abilities”, he said recently about Hilton, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “Mike is a tremendous competitor”.
Hilton is seventh on the team with 28 tackles at the moment and has recorded a fumble recovery, an interception, and six passes defensed. Though he has yet to finish off a sack, he has provided pressure as a blitzer as he did a season ago.
“He’s highly intelligent. He can see the big picture”, Bradley said of his nickel corner. “He’s not a phone booth guy. He can see what’s going on around him. He doesn’t have tunnel vision. He gets it. He can see the different variables. He’s very good at adjusting to formation, understanding down and distance. He filters everything pretty fast so he can play quicker”.
While he is not necessarily at the top of his profession, he is a far cry from where he started. In a story we all know by heart by now, he was originally signed out of college as an undrafted free agent by the Jacksonville Jaguars before spending a brief period of time on the New England Patriots’ practice squad his rookie year.
After the Patriots moved on from him in their annual personnel shuffle, he didn’t find a landing spot for the rest of the year until the Steeler signed him to a Reserve/Future contract. In the meantime, he was working toward landing a job selling sneakers.
Now he’s closer to having his own brand of sneakers than helping others lace them up.
Hilton picked up this year where he left off a season ago, as he continues to make an impact in all three phases. Against the Baltimore Ravens last week alone, he broke up a would-be touchdown, made a tackle in the red zone for a loss on third down, and provided a pressure that helped his teammate finish off a sack.
The only difference between now and then is his confidence level and his universal respect from his teammates as a been-there, done-that guy. He is one of the core players not just in Bradley’s secondary, but in the defense as a whole, and really the one player on the roster suited for that slot role and the many responsibilities it entails.