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Steelers’ undersized Mike Hilton still takes nothing for granted

August 6, 2018
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Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton in coverage during practice Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018 at Saint Vincent College.

In the locker room and on the sidelines during practice, Mike Hilton’s smile is as wide as it is ever-present.

Once he puts his helmet on and runs onto the field, though...

“Mike Hilton,” new teammate Nat Berhe said Wednesday, “he’s a pitbull, man.”

The two sides of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ smallest player perhaps both trace back to that trait. Listed at 5-foot-9 and 184 pounds, Hilton recognizes that alone is the biggest reason why he went undrafted. So as much as it is in his nature to crack a joke or playfully rib a teammate, once he gets on the field, the only way a player his size can survive is by being, well, a pitbull.

Or perhaps some other relentless creature.

“You like to see a guy like that, you want to be around guys like that,” said Berhe, who came over from the Giants during the offseason. “He’s quick, he’s aggressive and I get excited watching him play.

“When I was in New York, I had the privilege to play with guys like ‘DRC’ and ‘Jackrabbit,’ and I see a lot of those type of skills in him.”

“DRC” is cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie -- the better nickname and better comparison to Hilton is “Jackrabbit,” the 5-10 Janoris Jenkins.

Hilton came out of seemingly nowhere to win the Steelers’ starting slot cornerback job at last year’s training camp, and the defensive coaches gradually learned to trust him enough to use him at various spots all over the field.

There was that three-sack game in Houston, of course. Hilton was asked to cover running backs, small receivers and big tight ends. During this camp, he has bounced around the defense, hopping back to safety at some points.

“You see me at nickel one series -- and boom, I’m at safety,” Hilton said. “It’s just a mixture of everything.”

Just another tool in the toolbox for Hilton, whose outgoing nature has been on display on the Saint Vincent fields since camp opened last week.

There was the first day of padded practice, Saturday, and during the first drill, coach Mike Tomlin gleefully turned to Hilton -- all 69 inches and 184 pounds of the cornerback -- to take reps in backs-on-’backers against tight ends.

On Wednesday in team drills, Hilton played in a variety of subpackages but was most often matched up against slot receiver Marcus Tucker.

Tucker beat him for a touchdown during the practice-opening “Seven Shots.” Hilton responded with a congratulatory pat on the top of Tucker’s helmet -- and with a promise he would make amends later in the practice.

Sure enough, during a one-on-one passing drill into the end zone later, Tucker was stymied multiple times by blanket Hilton coverage. A frustrated Tucker playfully jawed to Hilton: “Don’t worry; I’ll be back!”

Hilton flashed his ubiquitous grin.

“I’ll be right here!”

It has been that way since Hilton joined the Steelers as a practice-squad player late in 2016 -- only now, he’s a starter.

“He’s the same dude,” cornerback Artie Burns said. “He’s still out there getting it every day and competing.”

Tomlin is drawn to Hilton’s competitive nature. That Hilton lost backs-on-’backers reps wasn’t the point -- it was that he had the want and desire to do it again and again against men who sometimes have several inches and many times 50 or more additional pounds.

On Saturday, it was physical running back Fitzgerald Toussaint against whom Hilton gradually worked his way into a stalemate, riding Toussaint into the ground at the end of a lengthy rep, the two still competing after a whistle blew and while rolling in the grass.

And then when they stood up, Hilton was smiling and giving Toussaint a friendly tap.

Of course, as likeable as Hilton is among his teammates, he isn’t employed for his demeanor. And Hilton’s play on the field last season got him ranked as the league’s 10th-best cornerback by Pro Football Focus. PFF rated Hilton the Steelers’ best cornerback in coverage and in run defense.

“I love his game,” veteran safety Morgan Burnett said. “I love his competitive spirit, and he’s a great guy. He’s one of those guys in the meeting room who’s always willing to help. He’s a great teammate.”

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