The Pittsburgh Steelers defense has been evolving at the back end over the course of the last few years, finding more talent through whatever means that they can, whether it’s spending in free agency, taking advantage of players being cut, or even making trades that are rather out of character.
And yet the starting player in the secondary who has been with the team the longest is actually their undrafted slot defender, Mike Hilton, technically. He was originally signed to the practice squad during the 2016 season, and emerged as their primary slot defender next season, surpassing William Gay, who would eventually move to the dime.
He is surrounded by first-round picks in Joe Haden, Terrell Edmunds, and Minkah Fitzpatrick, with Steven Nelson a third-round pick himself. He is by far the smallest player, standing at around 5’10”, and had pretty consistently been the smallest player on the field at every level of his football journey.
And yet he may well be the best tackler the Steelers have in the secondary, as indicated by the number of tackles for loss he has piled up since breaking out on the defense a couple seasons ago. Sure, he has his misses as well, but from a tackling perspective, relative to his size, he has been a good find.
Hilton talked about his tackling skills this past week during the bye, telling Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review essentially that it was in part driven by necessity because he was always asked to tackle people who were bigger than himself.
“Especially me pretty much being undersized my whole life, going against bigger guys”, he said, it’s just been a process of “finding ways to get them to the ground. It might not be the most physical tackle that people want to see — but it gets the job done”.
He does get the job done. He already has three tackles for loss so far this year, and has 19 in total so far in his 37 games played. He also has five sacks, though he had yet to get one for himself this year, and has only one since 2017.
One of the ways he makes sure his tackling is where it needs to be is focusing on technique. “Wrap and hold”, he said multiple times. “If you wrap and hold, they can’t go anywhere”.
He knows that doesn’t lead to many big hits “unless I got a free shot”, but that’s not what he’s focused on. His goal is to get the ball carrier on the ground. And in his position, where he needs to perform consistently to avoid the bench, that probably drives his focus on making the play rather than making the big hit.