His name wasn’t the biggest that was lost in free agency this offseason, but Mike Hilton might be the toughest player for the Pittsburgh Steelers to replace that signed elsewhere in 2021. Beginning as an undrafted player, Hilton developed a big role for himself in the Steelers’ defense with his outstanding ability to blitz as a slot corner as well as play the run, along with his improved pass coverage he displayed during his four seasons with the Steelers.
Pittsburgh has to find somebody who brings that as a slot corner this season. The names contending for the No. 3 got to begin auditioning for the role with full-team reps this week at minicamp. But the Steelers are looking for a specific type of player to inherit Hilton’s job, and the competition has just begun.
“The most distinguishing trait to me in terms of playing inside is physicality or the willingness to be physical or the ability to be physical and play against bigger people, and play in those close-quarter spaces. And I think we all would agree that was a distinguishing trait that Mike Hilton displayed,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said following minicamp Wednesday. “No one’s been given really an opportunity to display that based on how we worked to this point. I think that that’s going to be such a significant factor in determining who occupies that role for us. Their ability to play physical, the ability to play in that box and be effective run players and blitzers and so forth. Some of those traits are somewhat unique when it comes to defensive back play.”
Some players seen as candidates to replace Hilton reflect some of his attributes. James Pierre, Shakur Brown, and Lamont Wade are all fellow UDFAs who bring that type of fight Hilton did. Pierre has experience in the Steelers’ defense, while Wade was used on blitzes and near the line during his final season with Penn State, and isn’t afraid to dish out big hits. Those are just some of the players fighting for the job, along with others like 2019 third-rounder Justin Layne and 2021 seventh-rounder Tre Norwood.
Even given how unique a player Hilton is, Pittsburgh doesn’t want to change how the slot cornerback plays in its defense. Whoever steps in must be like Mike Hilton: Able to cover and defend the run, but ready to fly and create pressure on blitzes.
“I think just in general at least from our perspective, I can’t speak globally, we want to be able to apply pressure in all circumstances, and we’re not going to let offensive personnel group or groupings or our groupings diminish our personality. So everyone knows in our base defense we like to bring our backers and so forth. So when we go to sub, that’s just an extension of that. We’re exchanging one bird for another if you will, or one chess piece for another,” Tomlin said. “Regardless of the personnel group we’re in, regardless of a person or group that an offense is in, we’re coming because that’s our playing personality, and we covet players who display those skills. And he [Hilton] was certainly one.”