Mike Hilton insisted he didn’t feel particularly picked on as a 5-foot-9, 180-pound, second-year slot cornerback last season, but he acknowledged there were times when he didn’t measure up.
Fourth-and-goal from the Steelers’ 6-yard line with 25 seconds left in regulation and the Steelers clinging to a 21-17 lead last Dec. 9 in Oakland was such an occasion.
“I tried to do too much and it caused us to have a big loss,” Hilton recalled during OTAs.
Hilton had tight end Derek Carrier, who was lined up in the left slot.
Carrier initially broke for the corner and Hilton recognized as much and responded accordingly, or so he thought.
“I saw the route on film,” Hilton explained.
Except this time Carrier double-moved back to the post and wound up wind open.
“Easy pitch and catch,” is how what eventually became the game-winning TD was summed up on TV.
“They caught me off guard,” Hilton said. “I gave up a big one.”
It wasn’t the only mistake the Steelers wound make or the only misfortune they would suffer in Oakland, but it hurt.
And it resonated for Hilton at the conclusion of a season he assessed as “solid” overall.
A recap from the Steelers 2019 minicamp at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex
“I expected teams to kind of be more aware of where I was on the field and be aware of me blitzing,” he said. “I let some plays go but overall I feel like I was pretty productive.
“I’m probably the smallest guy on the field 90 percent of the time, so I expect teams to come my way. I feel like I’ll be in position to make those plays, I just have to find ways to make them.”
Hilton had made plenty of them in 2017, his first season with the Steelers after brief stints with Jacksonville and New England in the wake of being passed over in the 2016 draft.
His first 16 NFL games and first four NFL starts resulted in 54 tackles, four sacks, 10 tackles for a loss, two interceptions, eight quarterback hits and one forced fumble.
But he wasn’t able to make as many splash plays last season (one sack, one interception, two fumble recoveries).
And the immediate fallout from the play Hilton didn’t make in Oakland was for defensive back Cam Sutton to initially accompany safety Morgan Burnett onto the field when the Steelers went to their sub-package defense on Dec. 16 against New England.
Hilton was back in the sub-package by the third defensive series, and wound up playing 38 defensive snaps to Sutton’s nine against the Patriots.
But division of labor is never a constant when head coach Mike Tomlin believes he has options.
Sutton (5-11, 188) is a promising, third-year pro and a former third-round draft pick.
The Steelers also drafted a cornerback (third-round selection Justin Layne) and signed one in free agency (Steve Nelson), although neither specializes in or is particularly accomplished at playing in the slot.
Hilton maintained his focus in training camp will be on honing his game much more than it will be fending off competition from Sutton or anyone else.
“I’m focused on what I can do, what’s going to help the team win and what can I do to better myself as a player,” Hilton said.
The first step has been to add, in Hilton’s estimation, seven or eight pounds.
The next will be to “find ways to fight through the hands against wideouts and be more aggressive when the ball comes around and try to make plays on the ball, get some more turnovers,” Hilton said. “That’s something we lacked as a whole on the defensive end.”
High-profile changes already enacted on defense in response included the signing of Nelson and trading up 10 spots in the first round to draft inside linebacker Devin Bush.
“They’re good changes,” Hilton said. “Devin, even though he’s a rookie he’s vocal, he’s flying around, doing things he’s supposed to. And Steve, on the outside, he’s in position to make a lot of plays. He’s really going to help us on the back end.”