Steel Mill A.M.: Mike Hilton making the Steelers look wise
BALTIMORE — Days after the Steelers snatched up Joe Haden when the Cleveland Browns made the veteran cornerback available, the organization faced a choice on cutdown day.
They chose their pint-sized playmaker over their veteran returning starter. Sunday showed why.
Five-foot-nine Mike Hilton had a sack and an interception during the Steelers' 26-9 win at the Baltimore Ravens. That's exactly one more sack and one more interception that Ross Cockrell had for the Steelers all of last season.
Recognizing Hilton as their slot corner of the future, the Steelers kept the former undrafted free agent and practice-squad player to fill that starting role. And with Haden and Artie Burns the clear established starters on the outside, savvy veterans in William Gay and Coty Sensabaugh the perfect insurance policies and Brian Allen a perfect de facto “redshirt” to develop for the future, the Steelers were set at cornerback.
So, Cockrell – by far the Steelers' most-used cornerback last season –was dealt to the New York Giants for a conditional draft pick.
Cockrell spent one of the Giants' four games as their third corner. During Sunday's game, he did not play at all on defense.
Meanwhile, Hilton is thriving in Pittsburgh. He's held his role through a quarter of the season for a defense that ranks second in the NFL in passing yardage allowed.
Sunday, Hilton made two second-half “splash plays” – early in the third quarter he blitzed and sacked Joe Flacco on a third and 10 from inside the Steelers' 20, relegating the Ravens to a field goal.
Then with about 6 minutes left, Hilton helped seal the game when he corralled a ball tipped by Ryan Shazier on a fourth down in Steelers' territory and the Ravens still in the game down 10.
What was a more satisfying play – the sack or the pick?
“In that situation, an interception,” Hilton said. “It took momentum away from their offense and we came out with a win.
“As a defender, you want to get the interception, especially when it's crunch time and you can put the game away.”
All throughout training camp, Hilton showed an ability to make plays, be it pass breakups, sure open-field tackling, interceptions or blitzes off the edge.
He's doing it in the regular season, too.
Steelers 26, Ravens 9
Three stats to know:
1. The Steelers lead the league in yards penalized (315), and no one has been flagged more for unnecessary roughness (five times). Counting their opponents, the average Steelers game this season has featured 17 penalties for 161 yards.
2. The Steelers lead the NFL in opponents' yards per pass attempt (5.2), are second in sacks (15) and fifth in opponent passer rating (70.6).
3. The Steelers are tied for first in 20-plus yard passing plays allowed (seven) and 40-plus yard passing plays allowed (zero).
Snap counts to know:
Offense – WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (54 of 76), WR Martavis Bryant (48), WR Justin Hunter (9), TE Vance McDonald (30), OL/TE B.J. Finney (15)
Defense – FS J.J. Wilcox (69 of 69), DE Stephon Tuitt (56), DL Tyson Alualu (14), OLB T.J. Watt (67), OLB Anthony Chickillo (2)
Weekly schedule: The Steelers practice Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
Three storylines for the week:
1. Is Le'Veon back? Was Sunday's 39-touch, 186-yard Bell performance a return to the norm – or was it an aberration in 2017?
2. Is Ben next? Similar to Bell, Roethlisberger has produced average numbers so far this season. If Bell broke out last week, is it the quarterback's turn?
3. Is the Big Nasty D back? Through a quarter of the season, the Steelers rank second in total defense, scoring defense and passing defense. The underwhelming competition thus far is part of that; can it continue?
Next game: Steelers (3-1) vs. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-2), 1 p.m. Sunday, Heinz Field The Jaguars have had a bipolar start to the season, with two impressive victories (blowouts of the Texans and Ravens) alternated with two disappointing losses (beaten badly at home by the Titans, a loss to a Jets team predicted by many to be the worst in the NFL).