If you flash back to 2020, it looked like Mike Hilton was the quintessential Steelers slot cornerback. A star as a blitzer, it was a perfect marriage between scheme fit and the type of player that Hilton was at the time. After all, Pittsburgh was the type of team that needed a guy like that,
Then, when Hilton hit free agency in the 2021 offseason, he got a lucrative offer from the Bengals. Hilton never really forgot what he perceived as a slight from the Steelers. Still in the midst of a four-year deal in Cincinnati, Hilton has fit in perfectly with the newfound Bengals culture.
Joe Burrow helped change the culture on offense, but the junkyard dog physicality on the Bengals defense is a direct representation of Hilton. Cameron Wolfe of NFL Network talked about this shift that Hilton helped create. During his time with the Steelers, there was a big brother mentality from Pittsburgh towards Cincinnati, but now with Hilton on the team, it seems that has almost reversed.
“I’ve been in the locker room,” Wolfe said. “He talked about being a Pittsburgh Steeler and looking at the Cincinnati Bengals as maybe the little brother. Then he goes over to the [Bengals] and helps make them big brother.”
Even now, Hilton is one of the smallest cornerbacks in the NFL. But he was one of the first true slot cornerbacks that started to change how guys could be viewed. That chip on his shoulder has directly translated to the locker room in Cincinnati. Wolfe described that mentality of Hilton’s as a key catalyst for the turnaround in Cincinnati.
“This is a guy who has always been told he is too small,” Wolfe said. “He is not good enough. But, every time he has a moment to step up, he does. He has the most tackles of any cornerback out of the slot in the last six years. He is a guy with the Cincinnati Bengals who has helped this turnaround tremendously.”
His path to the NFL is one of rigor and intensity. Hilton nearly did not make it in football. Remember back to training camp in 2017 when the Steelers had no true slot cornerback, and Hilton was the guy who showed out and won that job off a future’s contract from the year before. He’s always been against the odds.
Hilton plays with a smile on his face. His infectious physicality, intensity, and joy for the game rubs off on his teammates. The culture shift in the AFC North stands through a few players, but poaching someone such as Hilton has allowed the Bengals to wear a natural chip on their shoulders throughout their rapid ascent in the AFC.
“I’m wired differently,” Hilton said to Tyler Brooke of Go Long. “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.”
Hilton is 3-1 against the Steelers since heading over to the Bengals. Now entering his third year, the AFC North is going to be more competitive than it ever has been since the Bengals became the overwhelming favorites in the division. If 2022’s split across the division is anything go off, the AFC North should once again be a hotly contested division against each other.