The Steelers have a weapon on the defensive side of the ball that few teams have. That special weapon is nickel cornerback Mike Hilton. With one of the most unique skillsets at the position in the NFL, Hilton gives Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler more schematic options than they could ever imagine. The Steelers found him by signing him as a likely camp body, but Hilton proved to be that and more. It is not just the come-up story that makes Hilton such an impressive player, but it is how he continues to get better each and every season.
Since his inception into the NFL in 2017, Hilton leads all cornerbacks in tackles for loss with 26. That signifies his playstyle about as well as any stat will. However, since 2017, Hilton also leads cornerbacks in QB Hits with 22 QB Hits in that time span. His fast start to 2020 is nothing new for Hilton. This is no contract season fad. Hilton has been this guy since he first won the job and he has never changed.
The vaunted Steelers pass rush has the highest pressure rate in the NFL entering Sunday. Not only that, but they lead the NFL in blitz rate and pass rush win rate. All of this is pertinent to the discussion of Hilton as a weapon. Yes, the Steelers have a fantastic duo of outside linebackers and trio of defensive lineman. They even have one of the best blitzing off-ball linebackers in football in Vince Williams. Not many teams have all of those pieces, but some can match it to a degree.
However, what none of those teams have is an elite blitzing slot cornerback. It is not a stretch to say that Hilton is the best blitzer and run defender out of the slot in football. In fact, maybe the only player that even comes close at this time is Kenny Moore of the Colts. Hilton’s ability to time the snap, be a sure tackler and still take on blocks from guys that are sometimes nearly a foot taller than him are incredible.
The Steelers use Hilton as a weapon. Even when he feigns pressure, it can open up opportunities for other guys to blitz. The key sack on Jeff Driskel to ice that game was because Hilton showed blitz off the left side, the Broncos slid the protection left, and as such Terrell Edmunds came off the right side free for the sack. At times it is almost like the Steelers are running a 4-3 defense with Hilton acting as the strongside linebacker. By acting as that guy, teams just have to adjust their scheme and gameplan a great deal for him.
The threat of Hilton takes some pressure of Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, and Stephon Tuitt. If they decide to focus on the talented pass rushers, Hilton has proven he will eat all day. Hilton has no problem living in an opposing team’s backfield. He plays with a fiery play style and never lets his size dictate his performance of capabilities. Seriously, how many 5-foot-8 slot cornerbacks are taking on tight ends and pullers, beating them, and still making the tackle?
Hilton does more than just be a fantastic blitzer, too. At times the Steelers will have him operate as a safety in their Cover 3 scheme that allows Minkah Fitzpatrick to work over the middle of the field. As a cornerback, he obviously has to be decent in coverage too. Some pundits may dock Hilton on his coverage, but he is adequate in this area. Just like his blitzing, he fights and claws at the catch point and will make plays. There is his fair share of lowlights in that area, but that is not where he makes his money anyways. Hilton’s excellent ball skills can make up for that as well.
The Steelers have decisions to make this offseason in regards to their contracts. So many key players are up to be paid this offseason with an uncertain cap number. JuJu Smith-Schuster, Bud Dupree, Alejandro Villanueva, Matt Feiler, Cam Sutton, James Conner, and more are just the tip of the iceberg. In that group is Hilton, who has been a stalwart in the Steelers secondary for the past four seasons.
Going out on a bold limb, even with cap restrictions, the Steelers may just find a way to get a contract with Hilton done. Why? HIlton is irreplaceable and too valuable.