Mike Hilton and the Cincinnati Bengals are not afraid
Think the Kansas City Chiefs are going to roll through the Bengals? Think again. These aren't your father's Bengals and a major reason why is veteran Mike Hilton. His rise mirrors Cincy's rise.
First came the hustle play that most do not remember.
No. 7 in navy blue dashed diagonally across the field, far out of view. Driven all the way back to the opposite 46-yard line, Mike Hilton could only watch as Tennessee Titans running back D’Onta Foreman galloped toward the end zone.
A touchdown would draw the Titans within a field goal and squash the Cincinnati Bengals’ building momentum toward an upset of the No. 1 seed. By the time Hilton shook free from Titans tight end Geoff Swaim, a man with seven inches and 75 pounds on him, Foreman had a good 10-yard head start. Hilton hesitated a split-second when it looked like a safety had a sure tackle, Foreman powered through and, then, Hilton hit the gas… caught up… and wrangled the big back to the grass at the nine-yard line.
The next snap, he pulled off a high-wire act of interception. Earlier in the game, the veteran corner knew what the Titans were brewing, yet hesitated. Not this time. Lined up for another slot blitz, Hilton closed on Ryan Tannehill, “read his shoulders,” timed his leap and tipped an interception to himself. Wiping those Titans points off the board proved to be the difference in the game and — hello world — the Cincinnati Bengals are off to their first AFC Championship Game since 1988 with a 19-16 win.
It was fun, right? Good for them. Put up a banner. Eat some SkyLine Chili. Go get ‘em next year.
Right about now is where we all assume the Bengals’ magic carpet ride ends.
For the fourth year in a row, the Kansas City Chiefs are hosting this title game and the Chiefs are the juggernaut. The Chiefs have the ungodly talent at quarterback who snatches souls weekly. The Chiefs are fresh off a ludicrous win over the Buffalo Bills. Right now, they’re 7-point favorites and you’ve got to go full Jack Bauer to hunt down anyone on the interwebs predicting a Bengals win right now. This sequence in Nashville, however, was a sign of hope. This is a player who can make the Bengals — make anyone — believe an upset is real because this 5-foot-9, 185-pound cornerback is the American dream with zero business being this close to a Super Bowl.
There’s always been more to Hilton than football coaches assumed and there’s more to these Bengals, too.
Everyone should absolutely know this: this team is not afraid of the Chiefs.
“Not at all. Not at all, man,” says Hilton, in this conversation with Go Long. “We know who they are. On the flip side, they know who we are. We know we have allll the talent we need and all the want-to we need to beat those guys and get to the Super Bowl. We know it’s not going to be easy. Everybody knows how talented they are. But we’ve been down this road with those guys before and we know what it takes.”
Go Long is a newsletter dedicated to enterprising pro football journalism. Free and paid subscriptions are both available. You can support this publication best by subscribing here:
Note that Hilton holds that “all” a tick longer. He’s right, too. This is 100 percent the mentality Cincinnati needs into such a do-or-die game. We all saw KC dismantle the Bills’ defense, how everything was so numbingly breezy late in that 42-36 overtime win. (“Thirteen seconds, thirteen seconds,” Hilton repeats himself.) Sit back in a loose, prevent defense — play scared, as the Bills did — and you are fresh meat.
The Bengals will follow Hilton’s lead. When it comes to Mahomes himself, Hilton says they’ve got to make him uncomfortable. Getting the quarterback to the ground is a must and, with a tick of pressure, the Bengals know he’ll give them a few shots at a turnover. When these two teams played four weeks ago — a 34-31 Bengals win, remember — Hilton cites two instances in which they dropped interceptions.
“So, we feel like those plays we make on Sunday,” he adds, “that’ll better our chances.”
There’s no reason to shiver in fear at Arrowhead.
“They wake up and put the pants on the same way we do. We feel like they might have Pat Mahomes but we have Joe Burrow. We know we can play with those guys and we can beat those guys. We just have to go out there and execute.”
Such confidence may startle those who’ve become desensitized by how just about everyone talks before facing the Chiefs but this is the sort of confidence that’s been fueling the single-most surprising team of the 2021-22 NFL season. The Bengals take their cue from the swaggering Burrow. Few quarterbacks can pull this look off after a playoff win. After the Bengals knocked off the Raiders (26-19) and Titans (19-16), the 25-year-old refused to get excited much at all, either. Where everyone expected a young quarterback to be giddy, he was… bleh. Nonchalant. He made it clear these sort of wins are now expected around here. And on the defense, Hilton is the voice to follow because Hilton’s rise to this moment mirrors the franchise itself.
He’s been trashed. He’s been dismissed.
Now, Hilton is one upset away from playing in the Super Bowl.
“I’m wired differently,” Hilton says. “I know, No. 1, to get into this position, how hard I had to work. I had to block out of a lot of negativity and a lot of noise that was telling me I wouldn’t be able to do this and I wouldn’t be able to do that. Personally, I feel it shows when I go out on the field and play. I’m always flying around. You’re always going to see a smile on my face.
“I definitely love what I do and I never take it for granted.”
The road to this opportunity, for Hilton, truly began one decade ago.
Down at Sandy Creek High School in Tyrone, Ga., like practically every kid in the state, Hilton dreamt of playing for the Georgia Bulldogs. This program is more religion than football team within these state borders. Hilton certainly had the tape, too. As a junior, he set a school record with nine interceptions and Scout.com even rated him the nation’s 78th best running back. When Hilton had the opportunity to speak with Mark Richt, the head coach at Georgia then, he was beyond thrilled. Richt!? Georgia!? He still remembers the adrenaline rush in that moment to this day. A rush that completely exited his body on the spot.
Richt informed Hilton that he was too small for his program and, to this day, those words ring in the cornerback’s mind.
“That’s one thing that really stuck with me throughout my whole career,” Hilton says. “That’s why I play the way I do and try to show that physical presence. … Hearing those words out of his mouth just stuck with me. I think about it all the time.
“It means more when they tell you that.”
Hilton headed to Ole Miss where he was able to play Georgia as a freshman. His team lost but getting a tackle for loss in front of Richt was nice. And, here, he repeats it once more: Richt’s slight “sticks with me to this day.” Probably because Richt was not alone. It’s been hard for anyone to look past the fact that Hilton is 5 foot 9 which, to be honest, may be a tick of a stretch. At Ole Miss, Hilton played every position in the secondary and asserted himself as a willing tackler in totaling 25.5 TFLs, 24 pass breakups, six interceptions, four forced fumbles and 3.5 sacks in 49 games (39 starts).
He was a playmaker in the SEC, the NFL’s unofficial farm system. No small feat.
Yet, Hilton received no invite to the NFL Combine and was not one of the 253 players selected in the 2016 NFL Draft.
“I just don’t look the part as an NFL athlete. I’m 5-9, 185. You turn on the film and I play like I’m 6-2, 230. A guy that’s going to fly around and make plays.”
The Jacksonville Jaguars threw him a lifeline as an undrafted free agent signing, but Hilton didn’t make the final roster cuts. The corner admits it was a mixture of the team viewing him as too small and his own so-so performance that summer. The Patriots signed him to the practice squad and he was released after one week. Which is strange. If any coach has embraced defensive backs of all shapes and sizes — true badasses, like Hilton — it’s Bill Belichick. This was the same team that won a Super Bowl two years prior with someone whose football life sent him to work at Popeye’s in college: Malcolm Butler.
For Hilton, being ejected that abruptly was deflating.
“I personally felt like I learned the NFL business from my one week there. That was an eye-opener for me and led me to the direction of, ‘Alright. If you don’t perform, if you don’t do your job, you’ll be gone in a day.’”
Then, he told himself it was over. He prepared for a life without football.
For three long months — Sept. 14 to Dec. 13 in 2016 — Hilton was out of football. He thought a team might give him a call if they lost a slot corner to injury those first few weeks, but nobody bothered. Nobody even wanted to bring him in for a workout so, Hilton stopped trained completely. He put an application in to work at a Foot Locker in Atlanta and was ready to transition into 9-to-5 life because, honestly, he didn’t have a choice. A man’s gotta eat. If Foot Locker passed, Hilton would’ve just worked in retail with another company. Not that facing this reality was easy. Seeing football slip… slip… slip away stung. He’d watch games on Sunday and know for a fact that he was better than other cornerbacks on the field. A strong support system helped. His parents and his then-girlfriend, now-wife kept telling him he could still get a call from an NFL team.
They were proven correct.
The Denver Broncos finally called and worked him out. They didn’t sign Hilton but he then flew directly to Pittsburgh to work out for the Steelers and was signed to the practice squad. The next summer, Hilton beat out former second-round pick (and former Ole Miss teammate) Senquez Golson and William Gay for the nickel/slot corner job in Mike Tomlin’s defense. On a defense loaded with first-round picks and high-profile players, Hilton was somewhat of a misfit toy. His toughness, however, made him the best fit imaginable through four seasons with the team. Pound-for-pound, Hilton was the sort of fighter Tomlin craves in his secondary. Unafraid to hit, he’d blitz off the edge. Few corners are so willing to throw their body into harm’s way. Hilton was also athletic enough to cover, making him an ideal chess piece in this scheme.
In all, Hilton played in 59 games (20 starts) with seven picks, 9.5 sacks and 25 quarterback hits.
He also happened to be one of the best bargains in the entire league. Hilton played on the league minimum for three years, was tendered as an RFA for $3.259 million in 2020, and then, when it was finally time to hit unrestricted free agency? The team that originally gave Hilton this shot and could understand his value best wasn’t interested in a long-term deal.
Not only that.
“They didn’t even offer me,” Hilton says. “That’s what a lot of people don’t know. A lot of people think they offered me and I took the Cincinnati deal but, no, Pittsburgh actually never came with an offer.”
Hilton had become such a fixture in the corner of that Steelers locker room. This Steelers secondary was one of the best in the NFL.
He admits this was quite upsetting.
“Because I know how much I put into that team and into that organization. I have no ill will toward them. I’m actually really grateful because they gave me the opportunity to be where I’m at today. But it definitely did sting when I wasn’t able to re-sign with those guys. I have no doubts about my decision coming here. I love what we’re building over here and I’m excited to see it continue.”
Fully aware of Hilton’s game-breaking talent, right in the AFC North, the Bengals signed him to a four-year, $24 million contract. Hilton spoke to Burrow, to head coach Zac Taylor, to defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo and started to believe this team could sneak up on people this season. Taylor told Hilton that he wanted his intangibles, his leadership as much as all the chaos he can create on the field — “I took that in stride,” the corner adds — and he particularly embraced this role ahead of the Bengals’ Week 3 game at Pittsburgh. With emotions running high, Hilton stood in front of the whole team and says he told the team that the Steelers look down at the Bengals “as little brothers,” and say things like “they can’t compete with us.” Hilton made it clear he was one of those players.
“I told them, being on the inside, I know how those guys think and how we can attack them and win the game. And we went out there and dominated them. Both times we played them. … They could just tell from the emotion I was giving in that speech. They could see it in my eyes. This one definitely means a lot to me personally but a lot to this organization. It could be a stepping stone for where we want to get to.”
The Bengals whiplashed Pittsburgh 24-10 and 41-10. Both wins injected Cincy with belief.
Wide receiver Tyler Boyd was a bit more pointed when he explained the impact of Hilton’s message.
“He was just saying how basically, how he didn't feel valued by them,” Boyd said then. “He was their leading turnover guy a year ago, and for them not to invest in a guy like him is kind of insulting because you know how good you are. You feel like you mean a lot to the team and organization and they just turn around and stab you in the back. I don't know what the situation was and he didn't say that in his exact words, but we understood the message that was pretty much how it is.”
So, this was a breakthrough.
Hilton also points to the Bengals’ overtime loss to the Packers. That was a zany afternoon, of course, with the six missed kicks. But in the end, it didn’t really matter who won or who lost because this game helped the Bengals believe they could hang with anybody. And if you can hang with anybody, why not think Super Bowl?
Now, they are one win away. The Titans and Chiefs, of course, present polar-opposite challenges for a defense.
After gameplanning for Derrick Henry, the Bengals now must chase Kansas City’s world-class speed all over the field — Hilton will be doing most of that chasing, too. Being passive, as Buffalo learned, doesn’t accomplish much. Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier forced Mahomes to nickel-and-dime his way down the field for four quarters and, eventually, the dam burst. They had zero answers for the Chiefs with the season on the line, unable to get a stop in overtime as well.
For the Bengals to win on Sunday, they’ll need to steal a possession or two. No player is more prepared to make that play than Hilton because he is willing to take that calculated risk.
“I trust in my ability to watch film and get any little hints and peeks at an offense and just try to make plays when I have the opportunity.”
Even in this KC offense, Hilton says he “absolutely” sees such hints, too. He won’t be hesitating.
Burrow’s ascent to superstardom certainly helps. The Bengals possess a quarterback capable of answering Mahomes’ haymakers — no matter how many times he gets sacked — so it’s not like the Bengals need to fiddle around in a field-position game. It’s OK to be the aggressor as a DB because, hey, there will likely be many points scored regardless. Hilton describes Burrow as a Year 2 starter carrying himself like he’s in Year 8 or Year 9. He’s floored by how “calm” and how “intelligent” Burrow has been all season. (For more on the most dangerous man in the playoffs, here’s our story at Go Long.)
It all starts with the quarterback from LSU with the cigar in his mouth.
“We know any time Joe’s on the field, great things are going to happen,” Hilton says. “As a defense, we have to get him as many opportunities as possible.”
The Bengals already have smashed expectations. Into 2021, they were the near-unanimous pick to finish dead-last in their division and Hilton remembers looking down on this franchise himself across enemy lines. Now, the Steelers will be breaking in a new era at quarterback for the first time since 2004. The Browns will try to rehabilitate Baker Mayfield for at least one more season and/or turn the page this offseason. The Ravens could rebound as Super Bowl contenders in 2022 with former MVP Lamar Jackson—this was a roster decimated by injuries.
Right now, however, the Bengals appear set up to rule the AFC North for a long time.
Mike Hilton — forever cast aside, forever deemed too small — makes this possible.
Mike Hilton gives the defense a palpable attitude.
So, the crazy thing? Cincy will be thinking bigger than the AFC North for a long time.
“We’re here to stay. We feel like we can compete for Super Bowls for the next X-plus years with the guys we have here. We’re excited about this opportunity on Sunday and we definitely want to go out there and handle business.”