It might have taken him a year of seasoning on practice squads in 2017, but it didn’t take Mike Hilton long at all the following year to carve out a role for himself in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense, opening the season’s first game in the slot cornerback role. He rotated with William Gay that first game in the first half, but from that point forward, the position was his.
What the team appreciates most about his game is its completeness in spite of his lack of size. He is surprisingly physical, and that shows up in all aspects of his game, whether it be coverage, playing the run, or blitzing as a rusher.
Entering his third season—as he hopes for a new contract—he has, I think, already fairly earned the status of ‘veteran’, so to speak, as a player whose voice is respected in the locker room, who is trusted to be able to understand the issues of the defense.
What he saw last season, at least down the stretch, was a defense in need of a lesson, unfortunately. A defense that needs to figure out how to take care of whatever needs to be taken care of during the fourth quarter in any given game.
Of the Steelers’ seven losses or ties in 2018, five of them saw the defense give up the game-winning points, or game-tying, in the case of the opener, in the fourth quarter or overtime. Some of those even came after the offense had already led a would-be comeback or game-winning drive a sequence or two earlier.
“That’s just something we have to learn as a defense”, he told Missi Matthews via the team’s website recent during a sit-down interview. “The ability to go out and close games in the waning moments. Oakland was a rough one. We were up 14 against LA here, so it’s games where we feel like if we close those out it’s a whole different situation”.
As Alex Kozora covered, he blames himself for the loss in Oakland, playing a role in giving up the game-winning touchdown late to tight end Derek Carrier. But it was also in New Orleans. It was also in Denver. It was also at home against the Chargers.
Any one of those games going another way completely changes the season, as Hilton noted. The Steelers only lost out on not just a playoff berth but a divisional title—which would have been their fourth in the past five years—by half a game, falling behind the Baltimore Ravens and their improbable 6-1 run to close out the regular season.
There have been a lot of complaints about the offense underperforming, but the defense is highly compensated as well, and they failures late in games—and early in games as well, at least earlier in the season—were instrumental in grounding the team in 2018. Lessons learned, hopefully, and applied for 2019.