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Is Mike Hilton the most dangerous slot defender in the NFL?

Looking at Mike Hilton’s big game for the Steelers in Week 2.

Denver Broncos v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Mike Hilton is having a great start to the 2020 NFL season. So far the Steelers nickelback has 2 sacks, 2 passes defended, 3 tackles for a loss, 4 quarterback hits, and 11 solo tackles. That’s a pretty good start, but where does it rank him on the Steelers?

That puts him second only to T.J. Watt on the Steelers for sacks. He is tied with Watt for second in tackles for a loss, behind only Vince Williams. Hilton ranks second in quarterback hits, tied with Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward and behind only T.J. Watt. Hilton is tied with Devin Bush for the team lead in solo tackles, first in fumble recoveries (on defense) and Hilton leads all defensive backs in passes defended.

He’s done all that while allowing 11 yards in coverage. If Hilton was a house hold name before the start of the season the whole nation would be talking about him right now. If Terrell Edmunds had these stats everyone would be talking about him. If Mike Hilton keeps up his incredible production they will be talking about him soon enough. But it isn’t just stats, his film has a lot to say about him too.


Blitzing and run defense

Mike Hilton has linebacker stats right now, and on film he often plays like one.

1st quarter, 2:22. Mike Hilton is the slot defender to the bottom of the screen, He moves with the motion.

Jake Butt is listed at 6’6” and 250 lbs, Mike Hilton is listed at 5’9”, 184 lbs. But this matchup goes to HIlton, who grabs Melvin Gordon’s legs for the 2-yard loss.

4th quarter, 2:36. Mike Hilton is to the top of the screen, approaching the line right before the snap.

The Broncos run away from Mike Hilton on this play, and they have the run well blocked. Mike Hilton evades Tim Patrick, a 6’4” 212 wide receiver that tries to block him and runs Gordon down 2 yards short of the first down.

4th quarter, 9:41. Mike HIlton is to the bottom of the screen, he backs out of the shot right before the snap, then comes back on at the end.

This is a rare play where Mike Hilton is playing safety for Terrell Edmunds. Hilton does a good job reading the run, and coming up to take Gordon’s legs out from under him.

Mike Hilton made plays against the run all day, and from every possible position.

His blitzing doesn’t just lead to run stops though.

2nd quarter, 14:06. Mike Hilton is on the line, furthest to the top of the screen.

This is perfectly timed. Yesterday I covered the Broncos trying a similar blitz against the Steelers where the slot corner committed a bit to early and tipped off Ben Roethlisberger that he was coming, and the Steelers scored a touchdown. HIlton waits till the quarterback’s head goes down and he is looking for the ball to make his move, and he’s on the quarterback before anyone knows what is going on.


In coverage

Hilton is a great blitzer, most people will concede that, but they will also tell you he isn’t very good in coverage. But so far, in 2020, that is not the case at all.

2nd quarter, 12:51. Mike HIlton is the slot corner to the bottom of the screen, starts the play about 7 yards deep.

The Broncos face a 3rd down and 25 yards to go. The Steelers back off the line, knowing they can give up plenty of yards and still win the play. Mike Hilton doesn’t like giving up yards though, and this screen gains all of 1 yard, forcing the Broncos kicker to make a 49 yard field goal instead of a shorter one.

4th quarter, 3:09. Mike Hilton is the slot defender to the top of the screen, he backs off the screen as the play starts.

Again the Steelers are willing to give up some yards to prevent a big play, and Hilton again crashes down to deny any yards after the catch. The play after this one was the run in the first section where Hilton brought down the runner from the backside pursuit. That series of downs would end with a Terrell Edmunds sack to send the Steelers offense back onto the field to end the game. Mike Hilton played a huge role in ending that drive and sealing a victory for the Steelers.

Mike Hilton struggles the most when he is tasked with man coverage against a deep route. The Steelers have limited the risk on those plays by having Minkah Fitzpatrick at free safety to provide help and using defensive switches that keep HIlton on shorter routes where he is far more dangerous to the opposing team. But when the Steelers are looking to take away the deep pass, and he can give himself a cushion to work with, Hilton does a fine job in deep coverage.

2nd quarter, 0:31. Mike Hilton is the second corner from the top of the screen

K.J. Hamler is lightning fast, but with a cushion, Mike Hilton is able to stay on his hip on this deep route, shrinking the window the quarterback has to make the play.

4th quarter, 4:05. Mike HIlton is the second corner from the top of the screen.

This one is even better. Matched up on Jerry Jeudy, HIlton again is right with him and denies Jeudy any chance of making the catch.


Conclusion

Mike Hilton has been the best blitzing cornerback in the NFL for the last 4 years. In a contract year Mike Hilton is taking his game to a higher level. in 2019 Hilton had 1.5 sacks, 6 tackles for a loss and 5 quarterback hits for the season. He has 2 sacks, 3 tackles for a loss and 4 quarterback hits in 2 games of the 2020 season. The Steelers are playing to Hilton’s strengths, and that may change when the Steelers face different offenses, but with slot receivers being the most valuable offensive weapons in the NFL, by both yards per route run and DVOA, a player like Mike Hilton who can shut down slot receivers while creating havoc with his blitzes and run defense is incredibly valuable.

If you look at players the Steelers have been acquiring the last few years, you can see a trend of picking up defensive backs that can blitz and cover. The Steelers realize the importance of that role on the defense, and while there are a lot of players that might project well in that role, they already have a player there already who might be the best in the NFL in that role.