Former Steelers cornerback Hilton wants to be a leader for Bengals defense

New Bengal Mike Hilton brings energy to secondary

Credit: Aaron Doster

Credit: Aaron Doster

The battle between the Cincinnati Bengals wide receivers and defensive backs has been entertaining through five days of training camp, but when the pads come on Tuesday, cornerback Mike Hilton thinks it will benefit the secondary the most.

“We can get our hands on them a little bit more and be a little more physical at the line and throw the timing off the routes,” Hilton said Monday in his first in-person interview with local media since signing as a free agent this offseason.

Cincinnati’s defensive backs already have put on a pretty good display challenging receivers to make plays on throws from Joe Burrow and the other quarterbacks. They’ve been limited in h

ow physical they could be to this point, as the first five days of practice — the last two in shells — are more like OTAs or minicamp before things ramp up with the addition of full pads.

Of course, wide receivers like Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd have had their chances to shine, including a memorable one-handed grab by Chase last week, but there’s been at least one day where the defense was the clear winner in team drills.

Wide receiver Tee Higgins said the defensive backs are making things difficult in practices so far, especially with the new cornerbacks, Chidobe Awuzie and Trae Waynes, who missed all of 2020 because of injury. Hilton has been covering Boyd more in the slot.

“Trae Waynes and Woozie (Chidobe Awuzie), these guys are the real deal,” Higgins said. “They’re giving us tough looks. That’s all we want — guys that gives us tough looks and go out there be their best. That makes us better as a team. They look good, for sure. They look good.”

Hilton, who spent the last four years playing for a stingy Pittsburgh defense, has been a big part of what seems to be a high-energy mentality for the Bengals secondary so far, if not always with his own play, certainly with the leadership he has brought to the group on and off the field.

His aggressiveness and physicality made him an attractive addition for the Bengals, as one of the top blitzing corners in the league coming from one of the best defensive teams as well.

“I knew they brought me here for a reason,” Hilton said. “I say I want to be a leader on and off the field, so I know one starts in the classroom. And if I can have those guys trust me and know the winning mentality I can bring over, I feel like they’ll follow my lead and we can turn this thing around.”

The Bengals defensive backs already are following his lead in embracing an evaluation chart he brought over from the Steelers, where players track loafs (not going hard enough to the ball), missed assignments, dropped interceptions and other mistakes and are charged a certain dollar amount for each error.

Safety Jessie Bates said seeing names on the chart is enough to make a player want to avoid mistakes, but it also adds a little extra competition to the unit. At the end of training camp, the secondary will use the money put into the pot for a nice dinner. There’s a separate pot of money that everyone contributes to as a side bet to reward the player with the most interceptions.

“I think that will play very key,” Bates said. “Mike Hilton came from a top-three defense and that’s something they did over there, so why not try to translate something into getting better as a team?”

Hilton said the chart was Joe Haden’s idea when he joined the Steelers after spending the first seven seasons of his career in Cleveland. Hilton wanted to earn his “stripes” with the Bengals but also bring some accountability to the group, so bringing over the chart was a good first step toward being a leader on the field.

The pot got up to about $2,500 to $3,000 in Pittsburgh but Hilton didn’t say how much the Bengals have had to contribute so far. Bates said on the first day of training camp there were five loafs, but players have been working hard to avoid the “fines.”

Hilton has been impressed with the coverage so far, even with Burrow throwing some dimes.

“I feel like we are jelling together,” Hilton said. “We’re trusting each other. We’re trusting our leverage that our partner is going to be there. Like I said, with bringing in me and Chidobe (Awuzie), they felt like we’re two guys that can really help the secondary. Getting Trae (Waynes) back this year is also a big jump, so we feel like as a group we are jelling and we can actually cause some damage.”

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