The Pittsburgh Steelers preseason tonight against the Philadelphia Eagles. Most fans will welcome the return to the gridiron after a 2017 that ended so abruptly.
- However, every year the “enduring preseason football” griping gets louder.
Taking our cue from the late Ken Beatrice, season ticket holders who must pay major league prices to see minor-league talent have beef. As for the rest of us? Well, that’s why we have our annual “Eat your liver and your Brussels sprouts and enjoy preseason football” article.
So if you have a case of the preseason football humbug, Mike Hilton’s story will cure what ails you.
The Other Cornerback from Ole Miss
Unless you’ve been under a rock, cornerback has oscillated between being an urgent and major area of Steelers need since Super Bowl XLV. No need to look it up, that was in January, 2011.
- In the 2015 NFL Draft the Steelers tried to address cornerback by drafting Senquez Golson in the 2nd round.
Sadly, Senquez Golson never played an NFL down. But in late 2016 Kevin Colbert chanced that that Bill Belichick’s garbage might be his treasure when he signed Senquez Golson’s former teammate Mike Hilton to Pittsburgh’s practice squad.
- As the Steelers were in between Le’Veon Bell’s record breaking performance against the Bills, and Chris Boswell’s shoestring tackle against the Bengals, few took note.
However, Mike Hilton caught Jim Wexell’s eye during OTA’s, earning reps with the first unit with back-to-back pass breakups. Days later, Hilton ended a two minute drill by intercepting Landry Jones in the end zone, prompting praise from Ryan Shazier and landing Hilton on Wexell’s training camp dark horse list.
Here our story takes a hypothetical turn….
The Problem with Cutting (or Eliminating) Preseason Football
The conventional wisdom holds that preseason is too long. Perhaps from marketing perspective that’s true as the NFL is not showcasing its top talent.
- Chuck Noll kept starters like Bubby Brister and Rod Woodson for most if not all of the 4th preseason game, using it as a dress rehearsal. Those days are long gone.
Fearing injury, coaches are loath to play starters in preseason. And when stars do suffer injuries, the howls to shorten preseason get louder. Michael Vick’s broken leg in the 2003 preseason offers a perfect example.
- And seeing starters injured in preseason, as happened to David DeCastro and Sean Spence, is difficult.
But that doesn’t change the fact that calls to shorten or eliminate preseason games are short sighted, and Mike Hilton shows why.
Mike Hilton’s 2017 Preseason Campaign
Doing it on the practice field and doing it under game conditions are two different things. Word was at the end of 2013 that wide receiver Justin Brown was an up and comer based on his work on the Steelers practice squad. Brown did earn a 2014 roster spot, but couldn’t produce in games and was gone before Christmas.
- Justin Hunter is another player who practices well, but still hasn’t proven it in games.
As Mike Hilton illustrates, preseason gives coaches a live-fire antidote to curing this ill
- In his preseason debut against the Giants, Mike Hilton had a drive-ending sack, recovered a fumble on special teams and broke up several passes.
- Against the Falcons, Hilton didn’t give up any passes, and forced a key incompletion on third down while Matt Simms was passing from his end zone.
- In the preseason finale against the Carolina Panthers, Mike Hilton recorded yet another sack on third down.
All of this begs the question: Would Mike Hilton have gotten these chances in a shortened preseason schedule?
Maybe, maybe not.
If Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake only had two preseason game might their focus have been on getting reps for Ross Cockrell and Coty Sensabaugh, their prospective numbers 2 & 3 corners? If not, health allowing, reps for draft picks like Cam Sutton and Brian Allen would get priority over street free agents like Mike Hilton.
Fortunately, Mike Hilton got those reps, proved he belonged on Pittsburgh’s roster so much that a case could have been made that Hilton, and not T.J. Watt deserved the Steelers rookie of the… er um the Joe Greene Great Performance award.
Steelers Football’s Back – Enjoy It
Times change. A generation ago preseason served as the water fountain sitting at the end of a football desert. Today YouTube, Steelers.com, Twitter and Facebook feed us our year round football fix.
- That doesn’t change the fact that preseason remains a valuable proving ground for young men seeking to live a dream.
Preseason projections aren’t perfect (see Jarvis Jones in 2013), and 90% of the guys playing in the 4th quarter of the 1st preseason game will never see and NFL practice squad, let alone a roster. But preseason is the place where players like Merril Hoge, Greg Lloyd, Darren Perry, James Harrison, Willie Parker, Ramon Foster and Antonio Brown began making names for themselves.
The same thing will happen tonight night against the Eagles. So watch and enjoy.