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2020 Steelers Replay, Week 2: Mike Hilton epitomizes the slot linebacker position

Mike Hilton was one of the most disruptive players in the NFL early in 2020.

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

Slot linebacker is the name I give the position. Playing in the slot in Keith Butler’s defense is not easy. You are a cornerback first and foremost, you have to cover wide receivers. In the current NFL you are going to face plenty of No. 1 receivers, you will face big bodied physical receivers, small shifty ones, and legit speedsters. You are a key player in run defense, where teams will send tight ends and offensive lineman at you, and when they aren’t attacking you, you are still attacking them.

Mike Hilton doesn’t just play the position, he excels in it, creating splash plays on a defense full of playmakers.

Hilton was injured in the Steelers 5th game of the 2020 season, but before that game his stats weren’t just impressive, they were incredible.

2020 Season, through 4 games
Tackles (solo): 27 (#1 team, #3 NFL)
Tackles for a loss: 5 (#3 team, #4(t) NFL)
Sacks: 3.0 (#3(t) team, #12(t) NFL)
Turnovers: 2 (#1(t) team, #3(t) NFL)
QB hits: 5 (#4 team, #32(t) NFL)

When Hilton returned in week 11 he wasn’t 100%, and the Steelers were a defense missing a lot of talent. Hilton wouldn’t blitz as much, as they relied on him more to patch holes in the defense than to be an attacker. In the other 8 games Hilton played he recorded 0 sacks, 0 QB hits and 3 TFL.

If you look at Hilton’s early season explosion, only 20 other players in the NFL recorded at least 3 sacks, 1 interceptions, 5 TFL and 5 QB hits in the entire 2020 season, names like T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, J.J. Watt, Khalil Mack, Montez Sweat are on that list, who isn’t? Any other defensive back in the NFL.

Hilton added 2 more interceptions on the season, and only 1 other player recorded 3 sacks and 3 interceptions in 2020, linebacker Eric Wilson in Minnesota. If you extend the time frame to look at Mike Hilton’s career, only 3 players have at least 8 sacks and 7 interceptions since 2017, Mike Hilton, Joe Schobert (LB) and Darius Leonard (LB). Mike Hilton leads that group in tackles for a loss, QB hits and passes defended, he’s also the only one that hasn’t made a Pro-Bowl.

Mike Hilton is a uniquely versatile player that perfectly fits what the Steelers want from their slot defenders. For the first 4 games of 2020, the situation around him was just right, and he dominated. Week 2, against the Denver Broncos was one of the best games of his career. Let’s take a look and see why Mike Hilton is so valuable to the Pittsburgh Steelers.


Elite blitzing

What makes Mike Hilton stand out from other defensive backs is his ability to blitz. Sure he only recorded 3 sacks, but his value goes way beyond those sacks.

1st quarter, 14:56. Mike Hilton is the slot defender to the bottom of the screen.

Pay attention to the beginning of this play, the Broncos see Hilton cheating towards the middle, they see Terrell Edmunds lined up deep over the receiver, those are key signals the slot defender is blitzing. Broncos motion the tight end over to block T.J. Watt, send their running back to take on Hilton and slide the entire line to the other side. the Broncos end up keeping 7 players in to block, partly because of Mike Hilton’s threat.

Now watch the linebackers, they are in man on the back and tight end, when they see those players stay in to block they also rush the quarterback. You’ll notice Devin Bush isn’t very good at these blitzes, you may remember me saying multiple times how good Robert Spillane was at green dog blitzes. Sadly Hilton was injured in the game Spillane was injured, and while Hilton started getting back to form in week 13, Spillane was hurt in week 13. Before he was hurt in that game Spillane recorded a sack and 2 QB hits, in 21 snaps.

Mike Hilton forces offenses to keep an eye on him, to shift blockers his way, setting up green dog blitzes and with fewer routes being run, it makes Minkah Fitzpatrick’s job as a single high safety significantly easier. On this play you can see how it took a quick throw, a perfect pass and a tough catch on the sideline to beat this defense.

The real fun comes in when you combine Hilton’s blitzing prowess with deception.

1st quarter, 14:30, Mike Hilton is the slot corner to the bottom of the screen.

He’s showing that blitz right from the start again, but Denver doesn’t want to keep everyone in to protect, so Drew Locke moves his running back to Hilton’s side. Only Hilton isn’t blitzing, the Steelers are in zone and Locke looking to the hot route that isn’t hot means he’s late to the route over the middle and Minkah Fitzpatrick breaks up the pass.

These were the first two plays of the game. Keith Butler has Hilton show blitz both times, and lets the young quarterback know right from the start that it is going to be a rough day.

Those are plays when Hilton intentionally showed blitz early, and while I love the Steelers defense flexing like that on a young QB, Hilton’s true strength is in not showing his blitzes.

3rd quarter, 1:20, Mike Hilton is the slot defender to the bottom of the screen.

I want you to notice when Mike Hilton moves, giving away his blitz. It’s right after the quarterback lowers his head to receiver the snap. He has to look at the ball, so he isn’t seeing Hilton and that’s all the time the Steelers need.

The Broncos even have a counter to his blitz with a slant from the slot receiver, but Hilton hits the quarterback as he throws and the pass is high and incomplete. At 5’9”, 184 lbs, Mike Hilton is not going to win a ton of pushing matches with offensive lineman, tight ends, or even running backs. Hilton has to bring something special to find success, and that is timing. I haven’t seen any slot blitzer show the knack for timing up his rush that Hilton shows. And it goes beyond just waiting till the QB puts his head down.

2nd quarter, 14:06, Mike Hilton is the slot defender to the top of the screen.

Watch the quarterback to start this play. He puts his head down, gives a fake snap call, then comes back up and looks at Hilton. Locke is trying to get Hilton to tip his hand, but Hilton is still squared up on the slot receiver so Locke is free to look downfield. . . except he isn’t.

This is what Mike Hilton does to an offense. I mean you have Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Devin Bush, Joe Haden and Minkah Fitzpatrick on the field, high draft picks, elite talents with plenty of awards, and you have to account for the 5’9” undrafted slot cornerback or he will wreck your drive.

If you don’t absolutely love Mike Hilton, watch that play again, look at the quarterback taking time to account for Mike Hilton and still get sacked. Go look at every play in this article so far and look at how far out the Broncos are lining up their slot receiver. Mike Hilton was living in the Broncos heads in week 2, Keith Butler let them know from the first two plays that Hilton was going to be someone they needed to account for, and they tried. Hilton just made plays anyways.

The Broncos did manage to catch the Steelers in a Mike Hilton blitz a number of times, but one of the main reasons the Steelers can attack so much with Hilton is the players behind him.

2nd quarter, 8:42. Mike Hilton is the slot defender to the top of the screen, Terrell Edmunds is the safety behind him and Devin Bush is the linebacker to that side.

The Broncos send motion inside, pulling Mike Hilton closer to the line (and the QB), baiting the blitz, they use play action to get Hilton moving inside and roll the quarterback out to his right, taking Mike Hilton out of the play. But it doesn’t matter, because Terrell Edmunds is able to stay with his receive deep, and Devin Bush gets outside quickly to shut down the 2v1, QB and TE versus T.J. Watt they are hoping to get short. Bush sees what is going on, and is there to pick up the tight end and the Broncos throw the ball away.

We’ll get into Devin Bush and just how much he meant to this defense next week, but know that one of the reasons Hilton had amazing stats early on, and very few later was Devin Bush allowing him to be more aggressive, when he returned the Steelers couldn’t get away with being as aggressive.


Attacking the ball

The slot defender is a major part of run defense in nickel. And Mike Hilton is no slouch in that department either.

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

In the Steelers nickel, the slot defender works a lot like the outside linebacker does in their 3-4 sets. Hilton is responsible for setting the edge here, and he does a fantastic job taking on a much bigger player, controlling the run lanes and making the tackle for a one-yard loss. The Broncos knew that motion would move the linebackers and delay Vince Williams, and while that let them attack the Steelers smallest player, Mike Hilton is living proof that it isn’t the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog that matters.

Don’t get me wrong here, there are plenty of times a tight end or lineman get the better of Mike Hilton, they should win that matchup every time, Mike Hilton wins well more than his share, more than some linebackers that started for the Steelers this season.

4th quarter, 2:36. Mike Hilton is the slot defender to the top of the screen, he’s the guy rushing the line at the snap.

That’s some T.J. Watt level backside pursuit. Mike Hilton doesn’t just show great timing and anticipation on his blitzes, he also is great at finding the ball during his blitzes. He’s nut just running upfield hoping he finds something, he is great at finding the ball.

2nd quarter, 12:51. Mike Hilton is the slot defender to the bottom of the screen.

3rd and 25 and the Broncos just want to get some yards to help the field position off the punt. It doesn’t work out, though. Hilton sniffs out the screen with the motion coming, evades the blockers and it’s 4th and 24. Whether he’s blitzing, defending the run or sniffing out screens, Mike Hilton has the hearts and smarts of an all-pro linebacker, he’s just small.


Pass defense

-yawn-

You can’t discuss a nickel back without talking about pass coverage. coverage, and specifically deep coverage is the weak part of Mike Hilton’s game. That’s like saying Hines Ward’s pass catching wasn’t as impressive as his blocking. Hilton can cover, it’s just who wants to talk about solid pass coverage when there’s all the plays above to look at?

4th quarter, 3:09. Mike Hilton is the second defensive back from the top of the screen.

Again, attacking the ball is his strength, he shows good reaction time and closing speed to deny any yards after catch late in the game.

4th quarter, 4:05. Mike Hilton is the second receiver from the top of the screen.

I’ll compare Mike Hilton to Joe Haden in coverage (Haden now, not All-world Joe Haden in his prime), if you give Hilton short route responsibilities, or if you give him deep route responsibilities he can get the job done. That isn’t beautiful above, but it is not bad, it’s solid. Of the Steelers WRs, Hilton has the best advanced stats, largely because the Steelers know his limitations and don’t do something dumb like put him outside where he wouldn’t work well. They put Sutton out there instead and keep Hilton in the slot.

With Devin Bush playing, the Steelers also used a lot more pattern match zone coverages that let Mike Hilton deal with less of the field with fewer routes to worry about. Hilton excels in those situations, not just limiting catches but making plays on the ball.

Mike Hilton is a free agent, coming off an injury and limited production that followed that injury. I won’t pretend to know his market value, but I do know it will be far below his real value in the Steelers defense, because he’s small and not an elite athlete. But his on the field impact will be virtually impossible to replace, there just aren’t two Mike Hilton’s in the NFL right now.