The Pittsburgh Steelers have been without nickel defender Mike Hilton for the past four games. While it hasn’t shown up in the loss column, the full range of what they like to do and the manner in which they defend teams has been affected by his absence in a ripple effect of personnel swapping.
The good news is that, for the first time since injuring his shoulder, the fourth-year cornerback has now strung together two consecutive days of full participation in practice, and looks to be on track to return to the field for this defense on Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
While Cameron Sutton has filled the nickel role ably over that time—recording an interception and three forced fumbles—he can’t fully replicate Hilton’s repertoire, which also features above-the-line play and physicality as a run defender and a blitzer, uncommon for the position to say the least.
That’s why the Steelers and defensive coordinator Keith Butler are excited over the prospect of getting him back on the field (and to be clear, it’s not simply Sutton, but the fact that others have to come on the field in the dime defense).
“Mike is going to make a big difference for us because he does such a good job”, Butler told reporters earlier today, via transcript. “He has a real good feel for blitzing. He has a real good feel for where he should be in the defense in terms of knowing what he should be doing and knowing what everybody else should be doing around him, and there is a lot to be said for that because if you know where your help is then you know where you can cheat a little bit and take your coverage where you need to take it. It’s going to help us, Mike coming back, quite a bit. They are going to have to be aware of him a little bit. It will open up some other things for us, I think”.
Because of his shoulder injury, Hilton has been limited to just 204 snaps on defense this year, but he has been productive when on the field. He recorded 29 tackles in that space with five tackles for loss. He also recorded three sacks, five quarterback hits, a fumble recovery, an interception, and three passes defensed.
You don’t get much more well-rounded than that, and that is exactly why he has been so valued, and valuable, for this unit, because it gives them options and keeps up their run defense at a high level even when they are playing with five defensive backs on the field.