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Breakfast with Benz

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

| Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018, 7:09 a.m.
Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton is mobbed by fans after breaking up a pass in the end zone during the second quarter against the Patriots on Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017, at Heinz Field.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton is mobbed by fans after breaking up a pass in the end zone during the second quarter against the Patriots on Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017, at Heinz Field.

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."

His fellow players and coaches agree.

"Someone probably told him his whole life he's too small to play football," defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. "And he said, 'Nah. I'm not.' He's proving himself. And he has probably had to prove himself his whole life."

Hilton's stature-over-size belief inspires his teammates.

"Intensity, focus, nastiness to his game," said Heyward-Bey. "He brings that. For him, to blitz and take on offensive linemen and big-time quarterbacks, I love it."

Who doesn't?

So, when does he let it go? When does "Hilton the Hater" go back to "Mr. Nice Guy Mike?"

"It turns off when the clock hits all zeroes. But for those four quarters, I'm a dog."

On the field, yes. Off the field? More like one of the puppies we saw in the "Pick of the Litter" documentary .

For Steelers fans, both personalities should be embraced.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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