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Mike Hilton is the real deal

Steelers’ castoff becoming Bengals’ treasure

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals
Mike Hilton reacts after a play against the Ravens Sunday.
Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Hilton has been everything the Cincinnati Bengals hoped he would be, and then some.

Hilton, who the Bengals poached from the Pittsburgh Steelers during the offseason, is one of the higher-rated cornerbacks in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.

An undrafted free-agent pickup of the Jacksonville Jaguars following the 2016 NFL Draft, Hilton latched on to the Steelers’ practice squad near the end of the year and became a starter in the second game of the 2017 season.

During his four years with Pittsburgh, Hilton became known as something of a sack artist as he accumulated 9.5 sacks to go along with three forced fumbles, seven interceptions and 32 passes defensed.

In his first year with the Bengals, though, Hilton has not been asked to blitz as much as when he was with the Steelers, but his contributions in other areas have been invaluable.

“I told coach, any certain packages you need me, I’m ready to go,” Hilton said recently.

Against the Ravens this past Sunday, Hilton was the Bengal’s third-leading tackler with five solos, an assist and two tackles for loss. For the season, he has amassed 52 solo tackles, according to PFF, which is tied for 12th best among eligible cornerbacks. He has been targeted 73 times, which is tied for 20th, and has allowed only 53 receptions, which is tied for 10th best.

Hilton has earned an overall grade of 71.0, his best since that 2017 season, and has been especially impressive in coverage, where he has earned a mark of 72.3.

But the most meaningful statistic for Hilton is the one that puts the Bengals in the middle of the playoff hunt, and in the driver’s seat for the AFC North Division title - 9-6. That’s Cincinnati’s record with two games left in the season.

“Playing meaningful football in December, you can’t beat it,” Hilton said. “Guys in our locker room are excited about this opportunity. We’ll be ready.”

And Hilton is not just talking about 2021. He signed a four-year contract with the Bengals, and expects this to be just the beginning.

“We’re growing as a franchise,” Hilton said. “We’re here to stay for the next X amount of years.”

It all starts with the players head coach Zac Taylor has brought in, and the approach they bring to the game.

“I’m real proud of these guys. A lot of people were probably expecting us to win three or four games. As soon as I got here, guys were excited about the guys we brought in. We’ve been playing well, and we’ve been setting ourselves up. We’re excited to see how far we can go.

“Guys are hungry to win, to put ourselves in a position to win the Super Bowl. We have an opportunity to get into the dance, which is the first step. We’re excited, we’re confident.”

Next up is Cincinnati’s final regular-season home game of the season, against the AFC-leading Kansas City Chiefs. The Bengals end the season at Cleveland, as team that has beaten Cincinnati six of the last seven times they played. A win in one of their final two games would give the Bengals the division title and a berth in the playoffs. A win in both games would take Cincinnati to 11-6, with a shot at the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

From there, anything is possible. Just ask the 2011 New York Giants, who snuck into the playoffs with a record of 9-7 and ended up winning Super Bowl XLVI (46).

“Once you get into the playoffs, it’s win or go home,” Hilton said. “You got to put all your chips on to the table and just make sure you’re ready.”