Cornerback Mike Hilton will be back in Pittsburgh this weekend. But this time he will play the role of visitor, as he’ll be coming as a member of the Cincinnati Bengals after signing with the Steelers’ divisional rivals as an unrestricted free agent this offseason. As an undrafted player, Pittsburgh giving him the opportunity that they did was significant for him, so this is a big game for him—but for multiple reasons.
“It definitely means a lot, just because it starts with the AFC North”, he told reporters earlier this week. “If we want to get into the playoff race and set ourselves up for the end of the season, we have to win these games. We have to make sure we take care of our division first, and it starts with going into Pittsburgh, which we know is a tough place to play. But we’ll be ready”.
The Bengals, like the rest of the division, are 1-1 through two games. They certainly look like they could be more successful than they have been the past two years, but that is setting a very low bar. Still, even last year, with a backup quarterback, they did manage to beat Pittsburgh last year, which, seeing it from both sides now, Hilton understands was huge for them.
“Guys were talking about it earlier this week”, he said of the Bengals’ 2020 win over the Steelers, which came in Cincinnati. “They just want to match that same energy they had that Monday Night game. We’re going into Pittsburgh, so it might be a little harder, but I trust these guys, I trust these coaches, and we’ll be ready”.
While the Bengals score an occasional victory over the Steelers, they have not won a game in Pittsburgh since 2015. This most recent win, in fact, snapped an 11-game losing streak, which indeed dated all the way back to 2015. They have only beaten the Steelers three times in the past decade, going 3-20 since the 2010 season. Not great.
But this is a different team, with a different coaching staff, a different quarterback, and a whole list of other things that are different. One major difference has been their willingness to actually spend in free agency and add guys like Hilton who have come from winning background and can impart that type of energy into a culture built on losing.
“We just have to be confident. That’s where it starts. If you go in there, especially to a place like Pittsburgh, doubting yourself, you’re probably not gonna come out on top”, Hilton said. “But I feel like with the guys we have in this locker room on both sides of the ball, we’re gonna be a confident group, we’re gonna fly around and make plays, and we’ll let the rest take care of itself”.
Let’s hope he’s wrong, at least for this week, of course. I wouldn’t mind seeing the Bengals have success as long as it doesn’t impede the Steelers’ path in any way, and really, the better they do, the worse their draft picks are. And I’ll always root for Hilton when it doesn’t counter my own interests.