Heading into the spring, did anybody predict that the Pittsburgh Steelers would enter the regular season with Joe Haden as a starting outside cornerback and first-year Mike Hilton working in the slot? If so, please contact me. I would like to buy a lottery ticket.
Once considered a significant long shot to even make the 53-man roster, Hilton has made his push all spring and summer to reach the point in which he has become by the season opener the Steelers’ primary slot cornerback, logging 24 of the Steelers’ 38 snaps in the slot, with William Gay getting the other 14.
With Pittsburgh also playing 11 snaps out of the dime defense, Gay and Hilton were both still able to get a healthy workload in, sharing the field together for all of those dime snaps, so both of them are still playing, but it will be interesting to see how this rotational dynamic plays out going forward, starting this afternoon.
Last week, Hilton was actually the Steelers’ slot cornerback for the nickel defense throughout the entirety of the first half, seeing a total of 30 snaps, with 24 of them out of the nickel and six out of the dime with Gay also on the field.
Beginning in the second half, however, they began to mix and match. Gay was the nickel on the first drive, but during the lengthy second drive of the half, both of them saw time as the third cornerback on the field out of the nickel. Gay also closed out the final, eight-play drive as the nickel cornerback.
It was actually a bit surprising looking at our charting to see that Hilton was the nickel for the entirety of the first half, which can be difficult to really discern during the live game because of the mixture of dime snaps.
It’s unclear why that changed in the second half, or if it was just part of a plan to give Hilton the first half to see how he did. Perhaps they wanted to turn to Gay late to take advantage of his veteran experience, which he showed off on a couple of plays, nearly picking off a pass on a jumped route.
I thought that both of them had a solid 2017 debut, and I’m not sure I see a clear benefit to going entirely with one over the other. Hilton might be a little quicker at this point in his career, and perhaps more physical, but Gay’s veteran instincts and consistently solid work out of the slot are valuable as well.
I’m honestly just glad that the time for him to play on the outside has finally seemed to pass. Gay has clearly always been more successful in the slot over the course of his career, and that is especially at this point where he is best suited.