When Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton was signed back in December 2016 as a free agent, few in the fanbase knew much about him. His diminutive 5′-9″ frame reminded many of fellow Ole Miss cornerback and former teammate, 2015 2nd round pick Senquez Golson.
Coming into training camp in late July, few in the organization has any expectations for him, other than perhaps a spot on the practice squad. Not only did Hilton exponentially surpass all expectations, but throughout the course of this season, he has proven in various ways that he is an invaluable member of a defense which is ranked among the best in the NFL.
This past Thursday against the Tennessee Titans, Hilton demonstrated the skills and attributes that have made him successful this season, as his defense contributed greatly to a 40-17 victory. As you will see in this film session, Hilton’s attention to detail and high level football IQ affords him the ability to play bigger than his size suggests.
Hilton’s Interception on Mariota
Hilton was not necessarily known for his ball skills in the same manner Golson was at Ole Miss, but as demonstrated on this play, he has the ability to track the ball which is a prerequisite to having ball skills. The Steelers’ defense is showing a front similar to an Eagle front, in this case using 2 defensive ends, 3 linebackers and 6 defensive backs.
As this play continues, one will notice #24 Coty Sensabaugh lined up in 7-technique beside #90 TJ Watt — the likely indication is that he will be blitzing. The secondary is showing zone, with Hilton shown lined up in the slot. From the snap, the Steelers’ front come all in on a blitz. Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota sees his receiver open in the middle but throws the ball too high. Hilton, who the entire time had his eyes on Mariota, tracks the ball and makes the interception. As easy as this play may seem, he did his job as he should and it paid off.
Fake Blitz Play
One of Hilton’s trademarks has been his effective ability to blitz from the slot. In this play, he is seen in the slot again, lined up across the Titans receiver. The one thing to note is the fact that the entire time, Hilton has his eyes on both Mariota and the receiver. Based on where the Titans quarterback is positioned, Hilton likely recognized where the ball was going. From the snap, he quickly fakes the blitz and re-positions back to make the play on the receiver who caught the ball. Although he was unable to complete the play, his obstruction gave the rest of the defense time needed to converge on the Titans’ receiver, thus minimizing any big gains.
Solo Tackle For Loss on Murray
This perhaps was one of the most impressive solo plays I observed in this game and it speaks volumes of Hilton’s abilities. In this sequence, you will notice the Titans receivers on the right in a bunch formation; note how the receivers are angled facing inside instead of straight ahead. The key person in this play is Titans rookie tight end #81, Jonnu Smith. From the snap, the Titans tight end crosses over in order to seal Hilton outside, for the purpose of creating a lane for Titans running back DeMarco Murray. The spritely cornerback instead is able to dip and bend underneath the block and make the tackle for loss. This play illustrated one of the advantages that Hilton’s 5′-9″ frame affords him, as the Titans tight end failed to get low enough to block him. This is just another example of why Hilton is essential to this defense.
The emergence of Mike Hilton has made many forget (and at the same time wonder) how it would have been if it had been Senquez Golson playing. Hilton is not just a success story for the ages, he is truly a football player. Not only does he continue to make splash plays, but he is able to do so consistently. For this Steelers defense to be successful during the final stretch of the season and beyond, they will need him to continue being the consummate playmaker he has been all season.