In all of my years of watching the Pittsburgh Steelers, I have never witnessed so many cornerback blitzes being thrown at teams each and every week. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler can do just that with the versatile corner Mike Hilton.
Butler, who succeeded legendary player and coach Dick LeBeau in 2015, has done an excellent job this season keeping it unique each down. As a result, Pittsburgh's defense has improved tremendously and this year has taken it to an entirely different level, exceeding expectations that many fans didn't think were possible. Our own Jimmy Norkewicz tweeted out how the defense has done in the first half of the regular season.
16.4 Pts/G (2nd)
286.6 Yds/G (4th)
180 Pass Yds/G (2nd)
6 Pass TDs Allowed (T-2nd)
26 Sacks (T-3rd)#SteelCurtain
— Jimmy Norkewicz (@dorkewicz) October 31, 2017
Against the Detroit Lions on Sunday Night, the Steelers defense, who has been playing lights out the first eight weeks of the season, struggled quite a bit but managed to take home the victory. Pittsburgh's 'D' allowed a total of 15 points, despite giving up 482 total yards (411 of those were passing yards). The Lions were 2/12 on third down conversions, 0/2 on fourth down conversions and 0/5 in the red zone. Artie Burns recovered a fumble that receiver Golden Tate III gave to him after catching a pass and randomly fumbling the football shortly after. The defensive line recorded two sacks as well.
Let's take a look at slot cornerback Mike Hilton, an undrafted athlete from the University of Mississippi, who wasn't even invited to the NFL Combine, but was given an opportunity first with the Jacksonville Jaguars and then the New England Patriots before finally starting on the Steelers defense.
Solid Coverage; Reads Route; Jumps to Breakup Pass
One aspect of Hilton's game is his excellent football IQ. There is no doubt that he watches a ton of football film to prepare for opposing teams. This play is not so much displaying high football IQ but rather quickness and awareness in his game.
The Lions are lined up in an 11 personnel package (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs). Tight end Eric Ebron (#85) is lined up trips right as a receiver.
The inside receiver on the trips right side (#15) Golden Tate III is running a three-step slant route. Tight end Ebron is running what seems to be a very poor "out route". This was supposed to slow down Mike Hilton, as Ebron runs his route right into his area. It didn't: Hilton reads Matthew Stafford's eyes and jumps the route, resulting in an incomplete pass on third down.
This play displayed great recognition and the ability to plant and use his speed to get to the football. Hilton is an elusive smart football player. It's just a matter of time before he really starts to bait quarterbacks into throwing the football his way.
Game on the line; Hilton's HUGE Tackle
I have a friend of mine that is a die-hard Lions fan. He asked me shortly after they called this draw play with running back Theo Riddick if I thought it was a good play to call. My response was - yes.
Why would this be a solid play to call in the game when you need a touchdown and have two plays to either get that or reach the first down yardage at the one-yard line? Well, it's quite simple: to catch the Steelers defense by surprise.
Detroit finished the game with 60 rushing yards by their running backs with a total of 71 total rushing yards. Stafford ran one time for 11 yards. If I was offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter and I knew that the Steelers were expecting pass due to my running game not doing too well and Stafford torching the secondary after throwing for 400-yards, I would try to run the screen to catch the defense by surprise.
The only thing that was wrong with this call is that the Lions were without some key offensive lineman. One, in particular, is their starting tackle, Greg Robinson. His replacement was tackle Brian Mihalik, who was playing in his first ever career game versus the team that once had him on their roster.
It's 20-15 with 2:06 left on the clock. Third down and five at the six-yard line. The Detroit Lions can get a first down if they manage to get to the one. The Lions are in their signature 11 personnel package (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) that they loved to do in this game.
Cornerback Mike Hilton (#31) is lined up in the slot on receiver Golden Tate III (#15). As soon as, if not a second before, quarterback Matthew Stafford hands the ball to his running back Theo Riddick, Hilton plants his foot and flies toward the former Notre Dame back and makes an incredible tackle, ultimately forcing Riddick to stumble and fall to the ground. Teammates Javon Hargrave, T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree come in and clean it up to ensure that Riddick didn't break loose.
All hats to the football is the motto that we teach where I coach. The Steelers defense flies toward the football and this play displays that.
Decent Coverage by Hilton, Forces a Stafford Sack
The secondary of the Steelers were getting torched all night by Stafford. He finished the game with over 400-yards passing, the worst yards allowed this season. If you don't apply pressure up front and rattle the quarterback, it's going to be a long night.
In the above play, Mike Hilton (#31) is shown in the slot covering Golden Tate III (#15). Due to the decent coverage by Hilton, Stafford holds the ball too long and gets sacked for an 11-yard loss by defensive end Cameron Heyward.
At the start of this clip, Hilton is in prime position to make a play if Stafford throws the football outside. Fellow teammate and safety Sean Davis is in perfect position if Tate runs a "go-route". The only thing that Tate really can do, is run an inside route, such as a "post-route". He does, and Hilton loses his footing and slows down a bit. If in fact Stafford had time in the pocket and threw the inside route to Tate, this could be a contested catch for him.
That is a hypothetical situation. Hilton provided good enough coverage that Stafford didn't throw the football right away and that resulted in a sack by Heyward. Solid play by both athletes.
Mike Hilton was once an undrafted athlete who didn't even get a chance to showcase his talent at the NFL Combine. That didn't matter for the young 23-year-old athlete, who worked his ass off to get to where he is today.
The Steelers, especially defensive coordinator Keith Butler, have found a way to utilize the explosive cornerback. In my honest opinion, this secondary would not be doing as well as it is this season if it wasn't for this guy starting. Hilton through eight games this season has come away with 32 total tackles, one interception, one sack, and multiple tackles for a loss.
He is doing so well that Pro Football Focus has him ranked 20th on their list with an 82.7 PFF score.
It doesn't matter how you get to where you are but as long as Hilton continue to shine, there is no doubt in my mind that he will be the starting slot cornerback for many years to come.