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Steelers Vertex: Loss vs. gain at slot cornerback

The Steelers know they will not have Mike Hilton in 2021, but exactly who will replace him has yet to be determined

Pittsburgh Steelers v New York Giants Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

With changes in the Steelers roster from 2020 to 2021, we’re going to highlight players lost at a position and the production of the assumed replacement. This week we looking at the loss of Mike Hilton at the slot cornerback position.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

When it comes to the stats portion of this particular vertex, I’m going to focus on the Steelers’ loss of Mike Hilton. When it comes to who will step in to grab the slot cornerback role, it is yet to be determined between a handful of players. But don’t worry, Geoffrey will be making a case for a replacement in the film section.

In a few categories, Mike Hilton put up some of his best stats in recent years in 2020 despite missing four games. Grabbing a career-high three interceptions, Hilton also had seven passes defensed, a forced fumble, and two fumble recoveries. According to Pro Football Reference, Hilton was targeted 45 times in the passing game and surrendered 29 completions for a 64.4% completion percentage which was his highest since 2018 when the stats were kept.

Still looking at pass defense, Hilton was only credited with one touchdown surrendered in the passing game according to PFR. He was also sent on a blitz 46 times where he had one quarterback hurry, to knock downs, six pressures, and 3.0 sacks. One stat were Hilton did struggle in 2020 was he was credited with 11 missed tackles where here only had four in each of the previous two seasons.

What is interesting is how the Steelers sack production changed with Hilton in or out of the lineup. The Steelers averaged 4.8 sacks per game in their first five games before Hilton was injured and missed games six through nine. In fact, all three of Hilton’s sacks came in the first four games of the season. While Hilton was out, the Steelers averaged 3.0 sacks and after his return the average dropped even more to 2.86 sacks per game over the final seven games of the season. Of course, once Hilton returned Devin Bush had already been placed on season-ending IR and only two of the final seven games were played with Bud Dupree.

The biggest loss statistically to the Steelers secondary when it comes to Hilton appears to be in the sack department. With 3.0 sacks in 2020 and 9.5 in his four-year career, Hilton was the only member of the Steelers secondary to record more than one sack in 2020.

So there are some of what the Steelers will lose with the departure of Mike Hilton. So what could be the plan to cover the loss? This answer all comes down to the film as there simply aren’t enough conclusive stats to properly answer the question.

The Film Line:

Let’s start off with a look at what the Steelers are losing. Mike Hilton has been one of the better slot cornerbacks in the NFL, but he isn’t in that category for being a lock down coverage man, Mike Hilton is a great slot corner because he is able to cover like a corner, AND blitz like a linebacker.

Week 1, fourth quarter, 13:17. Mike Hilton is the slot corner to the top of the screen.

Two things show up here that are a big part of Mike Hilton being a dynamic blitzer. First, he times up his blitz really well, staying lined up like he’s in coverage until the QB puts his head down to look for the snap, giving him more of an element of surprise. Second, he navigates traffic well to get past blockers, here faking out Saquon Barkley and getting the sack.

Week 2, fourth quarter, 4:05. Mike Hilton is the slot corner to the top of the screen.

Hilton’s coverage is considered a weakness, but that weakness was exaggerated. He’s a better blitzer, but he’s one of the best blitzing DBs in the NFL. He was good enough to cover Jerry Jeudy on an island here, and the Steelers didn’t put him on an island frequently.

Hilton was injured in Week 6. He missed 4 games, then took two more games at a reduced snap count before returning in full in Week 13. With Devin Bush out and the Steelers losing Robert Spillane in Week 13, Hilton was asked to cover more and blitzed far less than early in the season. He was still effective at attacking the play, he just was being used differently with Avery Williamson forced to play significant snaps.

Week 13, fourth quarter, 9:06. Mike Hilton is the slot corner to the right side of the screen.

This was a great play on 4th and short. You can see T.J. Watt react to the WFT motioning into a wildcat formation, and you see Hilton react as well, and he destroys the jet sweep single-handedly for a turnover on downs.

The Steelers main adjustment to Hilton being out was Cameron Sutton at nickel and Justin Layne playing in dime. The Steelers tried playing Layne outside and Nelson inside in dime, but mostly the Steelers just avoided using dime, until Week 10. The Steelers used dime heavily against the Bengals offense, and their dime back in that game was Antoine Brooks Jr. He’s the first potential nickel corner we’ll look at.

Week 10, first quarter, 7:36. Antoine Brooks is the slot corner to the bottom of the screen.

A common Steeler defense here, a nickel blitz with Edmunds picking up the receiver. You can see Brooks isn’t afraid to get physical, but his timing and speed aren’t close to Mike Hilton’s and this would be his only blitz of the season.

Week 10, third quarter, 8:53. Antoine Brooks Jr. is the slot corner to the top of the screen.

I was pleasantly surprised at Antoine Brooks Jr.’s coverage in this game, he showed understanding and enough intelligence to get by in zone and easier assignments. Facing Tyler Boyd was a different matter. Brooks Jr. is not a fluid player, and Boyd beats him easily on this simple out route. Brooks Jr. in coverage was on par with a solid linebacker, like Robert Spillane. That makes it hard to see him being a top contender for the dime job, let alone Hilton’s nickel spot.

Week 10, fourth quarter, 2:00. Antoine Brooks is the defender farthest to the left side of the screen.

Brooks Jr. does a great job shaking the tight end and cutting inside for a shot at the running back. He’s no Mike HIlton though, as his limited athleticism makes him a hair late to make the tackle. Sadly the Steelers lost lane integrity on the backside, because this is still a good job blowing up the play by Brooks Jr. There just wasn’t anyone there to finish it.

At the end of Weeks 10 and 11, in garbage time, the Steelers gave James Pierre some snaps at corner.

Week 11, 4th quarter, 3:30. James Pierre is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

James Pierre didn’t blitz at all in 2020, and this was his only tackle for a loss, but he shows the reaction speed, aggressiveness and ability to finish that Mike Hilton shows on similar plays. James Pierre was positionally sound in run defense, even if he didn’t get an opportunity to make plays against the run.

James Pierre’s 2020 season was an incredibly small sample size, so I went through every snap he played looking for his worst snap. This is the worst one I could find.

Week 17, third quarter, 0:02. James Pierre is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

James Pierre played in Week 17 once the Steelers decided to sit Steven Nelson for the rest of the game. Here Pierre is beaten on a comeback route, but not badly, and if a throw had come that way, it would have needed to be well timed to get there before Pierre recovered.

This is the worst snap by James Pierre I found. Look at the bottom of the screen, to Justin Layne. On James Pierre’s worst play Justin Layne looks lost and allows his receiver to run free for a 15 yard gain.

People keep downplaying the offseason hype on James Pierre, and they downplayed the hype from his stellar play in a very small sample size, but the film tells me James Pierre is a smart and instinctive football player that is going to make an impact in 2021. And of course, I need to show the one time he was targeted down field.

Wild Card game, second quarter, 11:31.

That’s nearly perfect execution. And that’s what Pierre put on film more often than not, zone, man, run defense, he was incredibly sound in his positioning and technique. He’s not a freak athlete, he’s not going to be a superstar, but if the Steelers can limit his snaps on an island, he’s going to be really good.

Pierre is gaining steam as the pick for the #3 cornerback, but a lot of people are thinking Cameron Sutton will slide into the nickel and Pierre will play outside, but I disagree. Cameron Sutton is a much better fit outside than he is in the nickel. His dime role was nothing like Mike Hilton’s nickel role, and he doesn’t fit the physicality and aggressiveness the nickel needs. James Pierre does. Pierre also shows the intelligence and execution that is far more important than physical traits when you play nickel.

Justin Layne isn’t going to play the nickelback position, Antoine Brooks Jr. isn’t athletic enough or sound enough in his coverage technique to play the nickel, and Cameron Sutton is a better fit outside playing Steven Nelson’s role. James Pierre has the smarts, toughness, tackling and aggressiveness to play that role for the Steelers in 2021. Expect Pierre to win the nickel corner job in 2021.

The Point:

There are certain things that Mike Hilton has shown for Steelers over the last several years which don’t appear to be easily replaced for the 2021 season. It’s not that other players can’t do this job, it’s simply that they haven’t been asked to do it extensively at this point.

For this reason, the loss of Mike Hilton likely gives the Steelers the biggest question mark when it comes to his replacement out of anyone else who left following the 2020 season. Although these things will sort themselves out in time, it is really difficult to judge if anyone, rather through just one person or several players combined, will be able to bring to the Steelers secondary and slot cornerback position what Hilton did in his four years.

But the sky is not completely falling. There are options for the Steelers. Whether it be Antoine Brooks Jr., James Pierre, or one of the Steelers rookies, hopefully someone emerges as the player who will step in and seize the opportunity to log meaningful snaps in the Steelers’ secondary. The biggest question remaining is if there will be a drop off in both production and the Steelers ability to allow other players to play to their strengths within the defense.