Bengals’ Hilton hopes to take advantage of rookie quarterback mistakes

CINCINNATI -- Mike Hilton remembers how special it was to record his first interception with the Cincinnati Bengals last year against the Pittsburgh Steelers, his former team.

He would love a chance to grab another one against the Steelers on Sunday when the Bengals meet their AFC North rivals at Acrisure Stadium, the facility he spent so much time in during his first four years in the NFL.

Hilton picked off a pass from now-retired Ben Roethlisberger and returned it 24 yards for a touchdown in a 41-10 win at home last year. He’s still waiting for his first interception of 2022, and Pittsburgh will be starting rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett, who already has eight interceptions in five starts.

The Bengals will be eager to take advantage of the rookie’s mistakes.

“Those are the opportunities you thrive on, going against rookie guys, guys on the big stage, but we know it’s not gonna be easy,” Hilton said. “We just got to make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to and put ourselves in a position to make those plays.”

Cincinnati’s defense has eight interceptions this season, but none of them have come from cornerbacks. Safety Vonn Bell leads with four picks, free safety Jessie Bates adds two and linebackers Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt each have one.

Hilton said any takeaways will be “big” for whoever gets them Sunday, but it would mean a little more to him.

“Just the time I spent with those guys and obviously like I said I’m always grateful for them helping me get where I am now, but I’m on this side and I wouldn’t change it one bit,” Hilton said.

Hilton is coming off surgery two weeks ago on his pinky, which he fractured and suffered a torn ligament in during the Week 8 loss at Cleveland, but he is back to full participation in practice and plans to wear a soft splint Sunday.

In terms of his job, catching is easier than tackling, so he sees no reason why his first interception couldn’t come Sunday.

“I just know I am going to have to deal with some pain,” Hilton said. “Obviously, at this point in the season everybody’s had something that’s aching or hurting, but just knowing the way I play, I gotta make sure I feel comfortable wrapping up and just still being aggressive with my hands and just trying to be a playmaker that I am. Catching the ball is actually way easier in fact, so that’s a good thing. So hopefully I get some opportunities to get my hands on the ball this weekend.”

Pickett replaced Mitch Trubisky full-time in Week 5 after the Steelers’ 1-3 start, which included a 23-20 overtime win in Cincinnati to open the season. Pickett has completed 66.7 percent of his passes for 1,161 yards and two touchdowns, while going 2-3, but the turnovers have been a concern.

The 2022 first-round draft pick had three of his interceptions in his debut off the bench against the Jets in Week 4. He also had three picks in a 16-10 loss at Miami on Oct. 23 but was mistake-free in wins over Tampa Bay and New Orleans.

“Really just how they are feeding everybody the ball (stands out),” Hilton said. “They’re not focusing on one guy. Obviously, they tried to make it simple since the rookie has been starting, but he’s been making some good throws and just keeping them on track.

“Obviously, he’s a rookie so he’s gonna make rookie mistakes. Trubisky, he’s been around the game so he might not make as many mistakes, but offensive wise, they do the same thing to get both of those guys outside of the pocket and let them go make plays.”

Pickett rushed for 51 yards in Sunday’s win over the Saints, and Hilton said his speed, athleticism and strength showed on film when he broke “a couple good tackles from D-linemen.”

Bengals coach Zac Taylor said Pickett still shows a lot of confidence for a rookie, and that will only continue to build.

“I would imagine the players around him see that confidence that carries himself with and the plays he’s able to make on the field and give them an opportunity to win games,” Taylor said. “The experience always comes into the fold of every game and he’s going to continue to improve because of the different things he finds himself in, but you just see a great leader. … I think he’s gonna have a really good career, and I can see why he’s a first-round pick.”

SUNDAY’S GAME

Bengals at Steelers, 4:25 p.m., Ch. 7, 12; 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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