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Steelers News: Mike Hilton, far more than meets the eye

Time to check on the latest news surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers have won four straight games and continue to “stack wins.” After their 23-16 win over the Baltimore Ravens in Week 9, the team has to move on quickly as they prepare to face the Carolina Panthers at Heinz Field on Thursday Night Football in Week 10.

Today we talk about how Mike Hilton has completely changed the dynamic of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ secondary. When he is out of the lineup there is a noticeable drop off in how dynamic the Pittsburgh defense is, and his attitude has as much to do with his play on the field.

Let’s get to the news:

Tim Benz: Two sides of Steelers’ Mike Hilton – Mr. Nice, Mr. Mean

By: Tim Benz, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Mean. Nasty. Tenacious. A trash talker.

That’s how I’ve heard people describe Steelers slot corner, Mike Hilton, the last few weeks. I heard it on the national TV broadcast last weekend. I heard it on local TV and radio talk shows. Guys in his own locker room described him to me that way, too.

Yup. That Mike Hilton. The guy who volunteers to flip the coin at Friday night high school football games. The guy who gives personal shout-outs to his fans on Twitter.

The guy who politely and patiently engages any media inquiry from reporters. The guy who romantically proposed to his girlfriend on bended knee in Point State Park this spring.

That Mike Hilton!

”He’s got that mean streak,” said Steelers veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey.

Seriously? Mike Hilton?

I’ve been in the Steelers locker room for the better part of 17 years. Hilton is one of most pleasant, welcoming, kind players I’ve interviewed in that time. So how is he getting the reputation of “Hilton the Hater?”

”I’ve always had an edge to me playing this sport,” said Hilton with his usual easy smile. “It’s a sport I love, and I really enjoy playing it. I don’t take it for granted. I just have to go out there and compete.”

But if you are going to compete — on the NFL level — at 5 feet, 9 inches and 184 pounds, you might have to ramp up the nastiness a tick or two.

”Ninety percent of the time, I’m the smallest guy on the field,” the Ole Miss product said Tuesday. “I’ve got to have that grittiness — that edge to me — to show that I belong.”

Hilton has proven that. He’s technically not a starter. But, with as much sub-package football as the Steelers play, the second-year corner has been on the field 60 percent of the time in 2018.

Hilton has become an integral part of the Steelers game plan, frequently relied on as a blitzer, if not to sack the opposing quarterback then to occupy blockers for other pass rushers. Hilton’s pass-rushing technique earned him three sacks in Houston on Christmas last year and defensive player of the week honors.

He stood out this past week as well in Baltimore, breaking up a pass in the end zone and throwing two Ravens for losses behind the line of scrimmage.

”You expect your nickel corners to tackle,” Hilton explained. “You’re closer. You are basically little linebackers.”

An oversized mentality is great to have. But at some point, you’re still 5’9”, 184. And some of these guys blocking you are 9 inches taller and 70 pounds heavier. So how invested does Hilton get when it comes to selling out to his on-field alter ego?

”Small dog, big bite,” said a grinning Hilton. “I get into that mode on the drive to the game. That’s when I start locking in.”

Steelers ride James Conner, improved defense into AFC contention

By: Jeremy Fowler, ESPN

The Pittsburgh Steelers finished the first half of the season with a 5-2-1 record. Here’s a look at how they have fared and what’s ahead:

First-half rewind: This season has stayed true to the Steelers’ identity, mixing brilliant moments with curious lapses. A three-game winning streak quelled concerns after a 1-2-1 start. The offensive line was tremendous in October, helping James Conner post three straight 100-yard rushing games while Ben Roethlisberger took one sack. The defense was among the league’s worst through the first four weeks, keeping the Steelers from an above-average grade, but things have settled down with more defined roles on third downs. Five different players have at least 2.5 sacks, led by T.J. Watt with seven. And JuJu Smith-Schuster has become an upper-tier receiver on pace for nearly 1,400 yards. Grade: Above average

What has to happen for the Steelers to make the playoffs?: Have Baltimore fall into mediocrity and beat Cincinnati in Week 17. A wild-card berth for the AFC North is no layup after strong starts by the Patriots, Chiefs, Chargers and Texans, so the Steelers need more separation from the Ravens and Bengals. The Steelers have lost a combined six straight games at Oakland and Denver, two places they travel over the final six weeks. They need at least one win on that swing.

MVP: Roethlisberger. This race isn’t so clear-cut because several playmakers -- from Antonio Brown to Smith-Schuster to Conner -- have put up big numbers but haven’t carried the team to victories, either. The offensive line has been collectively good. Watt and Joe Haden are among the defensive standouts, but the unit was too shaky as a whole early in the season. That leaves Roethlisberger, who has had issues keeping the ball (seven interceptions, five fumbles) but is sixth in the league in passing entering Week 9 (2,290 yards) and is flirting with 700 passing attempts on the season.

‘Quarter, dollar’ sub packages making sense for Steelers’ defense

By: Jeremy Fowler, ESPN

The Pittsburgh Steelers have drafted five cornerbacks from 2015 to 2017 and none of them starts for this year’s team. Former first-round pick Artie Burns was demoted. Former second-round pick Senquez Golson was released in 2017 before playing an NFL snap.

The uneven draft slate has forced Pittsburgh to start two veteran corners on their third NFL contracts. Joe Haden and Coty Sensabaugh are doing an admirable job, but the Steelers have been forced to get creative.

Which brings us to one of coach Mike Tomlin’s favorite topics: subpackage defense.

”Sub is the new base in the NFL,” Tomlin said.

That’s why Steelers fans will see up to six or seven defensive backs on the field during some third downs, aiming for an infusion of speed in open space.

Six defensive backs -- three safeties, three corners -- is called a “quarters” package, which features L.J. Fort as the linebacker on passing downs.

Seven defensive backs (four corners) is the “dollar.”

The Steelers experimented with these setups in training camp, but they’ve become big factors the last few weeks as safety Morgan Burnett got healthy. The Steelers are allowing 18 points per game during this four-game winning streak.

”It’s about having like bodies on the field, mixing it up based on matchups to keep up with the passing game,” Fort said. “In general, most teams across the league are not running the ball too much on that down. We’ve been hitting our stride, so we’ve got to keep it going.”

Through four weeks, the Steelers were among the league’s worst defenses. Players cited miscommunication as the issue. Not having a full arsenal for the passing downs led to confusion and, thus, missed tackles.

The Steelers needed time to find their identity. The last two games, however, they’ve held the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns to a combined 7-of-25 on third down. Pittsburgh now ranks 10th league-wide in third-down defense, with opponents converting 37 percent.

The plays are coming on early downs, too. Hilton and rookie safety Terrell Edmunds had impressive pass breakups in the end zone on first and second downs, respectively. Sean Davis mans the free safety spot in any package, while Cam Sutton is the fourth cornerback in the “dollar.”

”We’ve got a lot of guys who can run and cover,” Hilton said. “Now that everyone’s healthy, we can be the versatile defense we know we can be. It’s showed the last couple of weeks. When we’re all on the same page, we’re hard to beat.”