Can Kelly, Hilton handle Brady at safety? ☕


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Steelers free safety Sean Davis (21) -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Steelers safeties haven't exactly fared well in matchups with Tom Brady.

From Anthony Smith's ill-fated guarantee of a win back in 2007, to Robert Golden losing track of Chris Hogan in the back of the end zone in the AFC Championship in 2017, there have been myriad missteps and miscues along the way that have contributed to Brady's 8-3 career record against the Steelers.

With starting free safety Sean Davis still nursing an ankle injury suffered in the team's third preseason game Aug. 25 at Tennessee, the Steelers might be forced to try some different things at the position when they travel to Gillette Stadium Sunday night against the Patriots.

Former AAF player Kameron Kelly and nickel cornerback Mike Hilton split time at the free safety position in practice Wednesday, and if Davis is unable to play, it looks like the Steelers could use both in that capacity against the Patriots.

"I think it's based on personnel," Hilton told me Wednesday. "We've got a lot of guys who can move around and play different positions. As a defense, if you send a guy blitzing on one play and then he's back in the post on the next one, that will keep offenses off balance."

That's the hope against Brady, anyway.

Kelly and Hilton couldn't be much more different in their body types. Kelly, a former college cornerback, is 6-foot-2, 205 pounds. Hilton, a former college safety, is 5-foot-9, 184 pounds.

But Kelly has been used primarily at safety by the Steelers, while Hilton has been their starting nickel cornerback the past two seasons. Both could find themselves at either free safety or in the slot in this game in an attempt to keep Brady off balance.

Unfortunately for the Steelers, Brady has shown the balance of Nadia Comaneci on the beam in the 1976 Olympics when facing the Steelers. In five career games at Gillette Stadium against the Steelers, he's thrown 18 touchdown passes and no interceptions in going 5-0.

Kelly, who will be playing in his first NFL game, knows it will be difficult to trick Brady into making a poor throw or two.

"I don't know," Kelly said when I asked him if he could trick Brady. "I'll try. We'll see. Usually quarterbacks that have played that long don't get tricked. As long as we do what we do, we should be straight."

Other safeties before Kelly have had similar thoughts, only to come out of a game against the 20-year veteran wondering how things could have gone so badly.

It's what he does, manipulating defensive backs with his eyes to open things up.

"He's so quick going through his reads, he's able to move safeties or move guys period," Hilton said. "You've got to be disciplined against him."

That's the key. Whoever is back at free safety can't allow Brady to bait them into making mistakes.

"That's what Brady does. He's really good from the neck up," Kelly said. "We have to make sure we go out there and do what we do."

What they do isn't a question for Hilton. He's got 31 career NFL games under his belt. Kelly, on the other hand, is something of a blank slate.

But he'll just be another new guy on a defense that will feature at least four new faces, as he'll be joined on the field by inside linebackers Devin Bush and Mark Barron, as well as cornerback Steven Nelson.

Other than Bush, a rookie first-round draft pick, the other guys have at least played in the NFL. In fact, the last game both Barron and Nelson played was against Brady and the Patriots — Barron with the Rams in the Super Bowl, Nelson with the Chiefs in the AFC Championship.

But Kelly doesn't feel the moment will be too big, though he did admit to having butterflies in his stomach already, adding those will go away once the game's first play takes place.

"Every time I watch games, I always think about how I'd do against that quarterback," he said. "I'm just trying to make the most out of it."


Obviously, this is a less-than-ideal situation for the Steelers, who would like to have all of their defensive starters for this one. And there's still a chance Davis will be ready to go by Sunday. Friday will be the true test about whether Davis can play.

If not, the Steelers will be thoughtful about how they use Hilton and Kelly. Kelly has shown to be a pretty good playmaker on the back end of the defense, but competing against Brady is the ultimate test.

On the plus side, the Steelers don't have to worry about Rob Gronkowski running down the seam, so that changes things a bit.


[caption id="attachment_881885" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Steelers practice, Rooney Sports Complex, Sept. 4, 2019 -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

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