It’s hard not to root for Mike Hilton. A true NFL success story. Undersized, overlooked, undrafted. Pittsburgh signed him to their practice squad just over four years ago. He’s worked his way up the ladder since, impressing in training camp, working as the part-time slot corner, and taking over as the full-time starting nickel in 2018. A free agent in the offseason, he’s just months shy of a big payday.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, DC Keith Butler couldn’t say enough good things about Hilton.
“I called him ‘Sawed Off’ all the time,” Butler told reporters via a team transcript. “That’s my nickname for him because I love the way he plays. He plays hard. He’s a very tough guy for his size. He will get in there and mix it up a little bit.”
Hilton may be one of the smallest guys on the field but doesn’t play like it. He’s become one of the game’s most physical and best run-stopping slot corners. He punches above his weight, is a remarkably good open field tackler, and fearless playing downhill. Just from the last two weeks, here’s a cut-up of him playing the run and making tackles in open space.
Can't stress enough how valuable Mike Hilton's been to the Steelers' defense over the years. Offers their scheme so much flexibility. Plays like the biggest dude on the field. Great open field tackler/run supporter. Plays from just the last two games. #Steelers pic.twitter.com/6Fbat53rrL
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) December 16, 2020
In 202, Hilton has 43 tackles, eight of those for a loss. The latter is third most in the league, only trailing the Seahawks’ Jamal Adams and Buccaneers’ Jordan Whitehead who each have nine. Hilton has a good chance to set a career high in TFLs, needing just three more to break his current high of ten set in 2017.
Another of Hilton’s calling card is his blitzing ability. Butler lauded Hilton’s timing and effectiveness.
“He loves the blitz. He’s got great timing and great feel for blitzing, so we are going to use him in that regard, knowing that’s one of the better things he does. That’s the reason we beat Houston, beat him off the edge and stuff like that. He’s done it for a while for us, and he’s gotten better and better the more he’s done it. We’re certainly glad to have him. We missed him when we didn’t have him. The thing is staying healthy, and he can help us as we go down the road. His knack for blitzing is definitely something we will use.”
In just nine games this season, he has three sacks. That’s one shy of his season-high of four from 2017. He’s mastered the art of the blitz. Holding his blitz until right before the snap or sometimes, bluffing the blitz and then backing out on the snap, one step ahead of the chess match against quarterbacks.
The only downside is this is likely his last season with the team. Hilton should have plenty of value in free agency and given the Steelers’ cap-strapped financial situation, will unlikely be able to afford him. Cam Sutton is also slated to become a free agent, leaving uncertainty if both men sign elsewhere next year. If both walk, internal options for the team include 6th round pick Antoine Brooks Jr. or kicking Steven Nelson – who saw plenty of slot work his first three years in Kansas City – inside for sub-packages.