The only thing wider than Sunday's final score in Cincinnati was Mike Hilton's smile after he helped the Bengals defeat his former team, 41-10. Hilton, who spent parts of five seasons with the Steelers before signing with the Bengals this past offseason, gave Cincinnati a 31-3 lead by virtue of his pick-six off Ben Roethlisberger with less than a minute until halftime.
The veteran cornerback did not hide his excitement upon helping deliver the decisive blow that helped the Bengals sweep the Steelers for the first time since 2009. The victory, Cincinnati's third consecutive win over Pittsburgh, was the Bengals' largest margin of victory against the Steelers since 1989.
"Best feeling in the world," said Hilton, whose pick-six off Roethlisberger was his first interception as a Bengal. "That was my first career pick-six in my whole football career. To do it against those guys in a big division game, couldn't be any sweeter."
Ahead 24-3, Hilton and the Bengals' defense made sure that the Steelers would not cut into their deficit before intermission. On his pick-six, Hilton stepped in front of former teammate James Washington before waltzing untouched into the end zone.
"They were empty, so I kind of knew that the ball was going to come out quick," Hilton said. "I just disguised my alignment, and put myself in a position to make a play. I saw the ball in the air, undercut it, and made a big play."
Hilton epitomizes the Bengals' commitment to improving their defense under head coach Zac Taylor. Along with Hilton, the Bengals have signed several veteran defenders in recent years that also includes defensive backs Eli Apple (who also recorded an interception on Sunday), Chidobe Awuzie, Vonn Bell, and linemen Trey Hendrickson, Larry Ogunjobi, and D.J. Reader. The unit also continues to receive stellar play from homegrown talent that includes Sam Hubbard, Logan Wilson and Jessie Bates III. Add it all up and you have a defense that is currently sixth in the NFL in scoring, fourth in rushing defense, and tied for 10th in sacks.
The play of the Bengals' defense has more than complemented the team's talented offense, led by quarterback Joe Burrow, receivers Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, running back Joe Mixon, and linemen Trey Hopkins and Riley Reiff. While they may not garner as many headlines as the offense, Hilton and the rest of the Bengals' defense has nevertheless helped put the 7-4 Bengals in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
"We take pride in everybody in our defensive room," Hilton said. "We know our offense is explosive, so we try to give them as many possessions as possible. Defensively, we've been handling business."