The Pittsburgh Steelers’ biggest mystery of the may well be figuring out have to replace slot defender Mike Hilton, and who will be responsible for that role. A four-year starter for the defense, he signed with the Cincinnati Bengals this offseason as an unrestricted free agent, as they now figure out how to employ his diverse skill set.
“Building relationships is an important part of leadership”, safety Jessie Bates III, the only starter in the secondary who has been there for more than one season, told the Bengals’ website recently. “Just being able to text those guys not just about football helps translate when you get on the field”.
“Mike and I are getting chemistry on when he’s about to show on a blitz or when I can step in on a slide and play man”, he added, referring to Hilton. “It’s tough to do that through Zoom. Getting guys comfortable is the main part through communication”.
Hilton’s ability to play the run, rush the passer, and play in coverage with relatively equal efficiency makes him a very rare commodity, something the Steelers didn’t take for granted, and are no doubt regretting that they could not manage to re-sign.
On that note, I should remind that it wasn’t simply a matter of choosing between Hilton and Cameron Sutton. Sutton was re-signed for just two years, with three void years added. His cap hit is just $1.7 million for this season on a two-year, $9 million deal.
Hilton, on the other hand, signed a four-year contract worth $24 million, including $6 million guaranteed, and his year-one cap hit is more than $5 million. The Steelers would have had to figure out how to squeeze another $3.5 million out of their cap space unless Hilton was willing to take a less-favorable deal to stay in Pittsburgh.
With that out of the way, let’s recall exactly what he brings to the table, as we’re still going to see it first-hand twice a year. He has recorded 237 tackles over his four years, with 30 tackles for loss. He has seven interceptions with 32 passes defensed, three forced fumbles, and five fumbles recovered.
You don’t often see stat lines like that from a defensive back. That’s what the Steelers valued in him. And now the Bengals are in the process of working out how best to maximize his skill set so that they can get similar value out of him.
Part of that is timing, getting a rhythm down. Hilton had recorded a sack in each season, including multiple seasons with three or more sacks. You need to hit it at the right moment for the slot blitz to work, but he’s proven he can do it.