Former Steeler, now with Bengals, ready for first game against his old team

Mike Hilton spent his first four seasons with Pittsburgh

Being on the other side of the field from the Cincinnati Bengals when they beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in a Monday Night Football matchup last year, Mike Hilton could see what that game meant to the team at the end of another lost season.

Now a member of the Bengals and heading into the first AFC North rivalry game against his former team Sunday at Heinz Field, this matchup means just as much to Hilton as it does to a Cincinnati organization that hasn’t won in Pittsburgh since 2015.

Hilton, one of the league’s best blitzing slot corners, spent the first four years of his NFL career with the Steelers before joining the Bengals as a free agent this offseason.

“It definitely means a lot,” Hilton said of the opportunity to try to beat Pittsburgh. “It starts with the AFC North. If we want to get into the playoff race and set ourselves up for the rest of the season we have to win these games. We have to take care of our division first. It starts with going into Pittsburgh, which we know is a tough place to play. We’ll be ready.

“Guys were talking about (last year’s win) earlier this week. They just want to match that same level of intensity they had that Monday Night game.”

The aggressiveness of the Bengals’ defense in that Monday Night game ultimately played a factor in his decision to come to Cincinnati, Hilton has said in the past and reiterated Wednesday. Cincinnati forced three turnovers and rushed for 152 yards en route to a 27-17 win, snapping an 11-game losing streak in the series.

Vonn Bell’s hit on wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, which forced a fumble in the first quarter and set the tone for the Bengals, stands out as the most memorable part of that game to Hilton. Jordan Evans recovered the ball near midfield, and Cincinnati took advantage with a touchdown on the ensuing drive for a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter. Ben Roethlisberger then threw a pick from midfield the next possession, and the Bengals added another touchdown three plays later for the 17-0 cushion.

“Just like everybody else, probably the hit on JuJu and just how the team was physical from beginning to end (stood out),” Hilton said. “They sent a message to us that night. I feel like we’re going to carry that into Pittsburgh and hopefully come out with the win.”

Defensive end Sam Hubbard said Thursday that Hilton had talked to the team about how much meaningful a win Sunday would be to him.

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Hilton has been sharing his personal intel on the Steelers, including tips for Joe Burrow and the offense on how to beat Pro Bowl safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and to his fellow defensive backs, how to prepare for Pittsburgh’s wide receivers.

For Hilton, this will be his first chance to try to sack one of the most elusive quarterbacks in the league, Ben Roethlisberger, who was sacked just 13 times in 2020. Hilton hasn’t gotten to a quarterback yet in two games.

“I definitely had that run through my mind,” Hilton said. “Hopefully, I get that opportunity on Sunday and hopefully it will be a big play.”

Regarding how to keep Roethlisberger in check, Hilton said the Bengals just need to give him different looks defensively.

“Of course, that’s hard,” Hilton said. “Over his 18 years, he’s seen it all. But we definitely have to make him uncomfortable, try to make them one-dimensional and just make plays when we have the opportunity.”

As a former Steelers defender, Hilton expects to be on the receiving end of a little extra trash talk. Wide receiver Chase Claypool is the best trash talker on the Pittsburgh offense that he could face, but outside linebacker T.J. Watt is one on the other side of the ball that the Bengals likely will hear from, Hilton said, noting “he’s one of those guys who backs it up.”

With the league putting more emphasis on eliminating taunting, the Bengals will have to be more careful about controlling their emotions Sunday.

“Especially against a rivalry team,” Hilton said. “Definitely going to be a lot of jawing. We just have to be smart about how we do it. Don’t celebrate over an opponent and give a first down. We’ve just got to be smart and keep our heads up.”

At the same time, the key to the game for the Bengals will be having confidence, Hilton said.

“That’s where it starts,” he said. “If you go in there, especially to a place like Pittsburgh, doubting yourself, you probably are not going to come out on top. I feel like with the guys we have in this locker room on both sides of the ball we are going to be a confident group. We are going to fly around and make plays. We are going to let the rest take care of itself.”

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