CINCINNATI — Cincinnati Bengals rookie cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt said he isn’t sure what Mike Hilton’s secret to success is, but nothing the undersized defender does surprises him anymore.
Despite his 5-foot-9, 184-pound stature, Hilton plays slot corner more like a linebacker, and he’s made his presence known to opposing offenses throughout the season, but especially during the playoffs.
Hilton’s footprint was all over the Bengals’ 27-10 rout of the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, and he will be another key piece in a defense now facing the most explosive offense in the league. The Bengals travel to play the Kansas City Chiefs, who average an NFL-leading 29.2 points and 413.6 yards per game, in a second straight AFC Championship on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.
“Week in and week out, I don’t know how Mike does it, but I’m going to let him keep doing it,” Taylor-Britt said. “I don’t know what his routine is but whatever he’s doing, it’s working for him, man. You don’t see a guy like that — (or) I haven’t until I got here — who’s just lightning fast to the ball. Anytime somebody has the ball, he’s just gets there with the quickness, moving through the linemen. He doesn’t like to be touched, so he’s dipping in between linemen and everything and he’s in the backfield somehow. That just amazes me. I’m out there on the outside and guarding for two seconds and it’s like, ‘Mike again. Alright, let’s go then.’ I stopped being surprised, … but he keeps topping himself.”
Hilton made play after play against Buffalo in arguably his best game as a Bengal. He led the defense with eight tackles, one tackle for loss, two quarterback hits and a pass defended, and he came up clutch on the game-sealing first drive of the fourth quarter.
First, there was his blitz to force Josh Allen to throw the ball away on the second play of the drive. Then, two plays later, he threw himself into Allen as he released the ball for what Hilton thought should have counted as a sack-fumble. It originally was ruled as such, with Trey Hendrickson recovering the ball, but the play was changed on review to an incomplete pass.
“That’s more a shout out to the rest of the guys for making him hold the ball and giving me enough time to get back there,” said Hilton, who had dropped back as though he was going to cover before sprinting forward at the snap. “I wasn’t expecting to get there just knowing how far I was coming from, but that was a great plan. It was a sack-fumble. They just should have gave it to me.”
Another play on that drive served as a testament to his strength.
On first down at the Bengals’ 20-yard line, he lifted running back Devin Singletary off his feet for a 1-yard loss, and the Bills ended up turning the ball over on downs with a failed fourth-down pass to the end zone, which Eli Apple batted down.
Hilton doesn’t get much attention outside the walls at Paycor Stadium but the Bengals are glad he’s theirs.
“He’s the best nickel in all of football,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said of Hilton this week. “He’s savvy, instinctive, physical, great coverage ability, he can make plays on the ball and come up with the ball when he gets his opportunity. He’s a fearless rusher. A lot of guys are tentative when their number is called. He does a great job winning his looks. When he gets the chance to pull the trigger and come he gets the most of it. Having played against all sorts of safeties and corners and nickels that pressure you, a lot of them as soon as they get blocked, it’s kind of over. He’s the opposite. He’ll keep fighting through it and find ways to put pressure on the quarterback so they can feel his presence. Just really instinctive player that way.”
The Bengals are counting on those instincts this week against MVP candidate Patrick Mahomes this week. Mahomes likely won’t be 100 percent after suffering a high-ankle sprain Saturday in the Chiefs’ divisional round win over the Jaguars, but he’s been practicing in full and says he will be ready to go Sunday.
So much of Mahomes’ game is based on his ability to make plays outside of the pocket, but Hilton doesn’t think a potentially-less-mobile Mahomes is any less of a weapon. His arm strength gives him the ability to make all kinds of throws, and the Bengals need to make sure to tighten up his windows and force receivers to make contested catches, particularly tight end Travis Kelce.
“His right arm isn’t banged up,” Hilton said. “So whether he’s out there on one foot or two, you know, he is who he is. He’s the guy, and we got to make sure we make it difficult for him.”
Just like Hilton and the defense did to Allen last week.
Bengals at Chiefs, 6:30 p.m., Ch. 7, 12; 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7
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