Undrafted cornerback Hilton making big plays for Steelers

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The words slipped out of Mike Mitchell’s mouth and the Pittsburgh Steelers safety couldn’t help but shake his head.

Asked to describe rookie defensive back Mike Hilton, Mitchell settled on “feisty” and “fiery.” And even as Mitchell said it, he recognized the trap he’d fallen into.

“I hate to use those words because you usually use them with small people,” Mitchell said. “Mike is a shorter guy, but his heart is super big and he puts it on display every Sunday for us and you can see it.”

Considering the impact the 5-foot-9, 184-pound Hilton is making for the NFL’s second-ranked defense, he’s kind of impossible to ignore. The 23-year-old had his first career sack and his first career interception in Pittsburgh’s surprisingly easy 26-9 romp over Baltimore last week.

The former practice squad player took down 6-foot-6 Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco in the third quarter and then found himself in the right spot to catch linebacker Ryan Shazier’s tipped pass in the fourth to turn back an ultimately toothless rally by the Ravens. He figures to see the field plenty on Sunday in passing downs when the Steelers (3-1) host Jacksonville (2-2).

“I didn’t play much last year. I didn’t play at all last year,” Hilton said. “So this whole game is new to me. I’m slowly getting comfortable and my confidence is getting hype.”

Not that it ever really wavered even as he wandered the fringes of the league after graduating from Mississippi in 2016. He spent a week on the practice squad with New England before being cut, continuing to work out believing the phone would ring even though the market for undersized cornerbacks isn’t exactly a thriving one.

“I’m not the first one that’s been through this, I know I wasn’t going to be the last,” Hilton said. “I’ve trained with guys that have been in the NFL, they broke it down to me, said it was just about being confident in your ability and confidence that there’s always going to be a shot out there.”

The shot came last December with the Steelers, who made him a late addition to the practice squad then signed him to a futures contract shortly after the season ended.

On a roster dotted with self-made men — linebacker James Harrison (undrafted), wide receiver Antonio Brown (sixth round) and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva (undrafted) chief among them — Hilton understood once he got in the door, he had as good a chance as anyone to make the final 53-man roster.

“They brought me out here for a reason,” Hilton said. “The time they spent looking into me, I want to give them that time back and show them they made the right choice giving me a shot and putting me out there.”

Even if that shot came at the expense of a former teammate.

The Steelers first noticed Hilton while visiting Ole Miss to scout defensive back Senquez Golson, whom they ended up taking in the second round of the 2015 draft. Golson’s NFL career ended before it began. He spent 2015 and 2016 on injured reserve and didn’t make it out of camp this year before being cut.

Golson became expendable in part because of Hilton’s relentlessness, a trait that propelled him from an academically risky recruit coming out of high school to a three-year starter with the Rebels. He started at all four defensive back positions during his college career, though what set him apart was his tenacity. It didn’t go unnoticed.

Hilton wore No. 38 during his senior year after teammates voted him the Chucky Mullins Courage Award winner in 2015, annually to the player who best represents the spirit of Mullins, a former Ole Miss defensive back who was paralyzed while making a tackle during a game in 1989 against Vanderbilt but overcame his injuries to return to the classroom before passing away in 1991.

“Anyone that knows anything about Ole Miss football, the guys that they recognize with that jersey, it speaks to their football character and the way that they play the game,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.

A way that fits right in with the Steelers, who threw Hilton onto special teams and use him at nickel back, where he’s developed a reputation for impeccably timed blitzes off the edge.

His first NFL sack was no different.

Hilton took off at the snap, ran around 6-foot-7 right tackle Austin Howard and tripped up Flacco for a 6-yard loss.

“Quick little thing isn’t he?” Pittsburgh defensive end Stephon Tuitt said.

One who studies film for clues in an effort to pick up a quarterback’s cadence, though there’s more to it than that. Hilton will check to see when an offensive lineman reaches out to tap a teammate, a dead giveaway the snap is coming.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a specialty,” Hilton said. “I just have a knack for things.”

Many things. Hilton understands he doesn’t have the resume or the experience to go asking to be placed in a specific role. So he doesn’t even try.

“He is one of the easiest dudes to play with and work with because his attitude is, ‘Whatever you need me to do, I can do it,'” Mitchell said. “If he doesn’t know how to do it, then he asks. I love playing with the guy.”

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