Bengals will have revamped secondary in 2021

Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton (28) recovers a fumble in front of Indianapolis Colts offensive tackle Chaz Green (75) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton (28) recovers a fumble in front of Indianapolis Colts offensive tackle Chaz Green (75) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Credit: Gene J. Puskar

Credit: Gene J. Puskar

The Cincinnati Bengals will have three new cornerbacks getting to know each other and the system in 2021, as Lou Anarumo’s defensive rebuild continued last week during the first days of free agency.

Former Pittsburgh slot corner Mike Hilton and former Dallas cornerback Chidobe Awuzie signed as unrestricted free agents, replacing Mackenzie Alexander and William Jackson, respectively. They are expected to be joined in the secondary this season by Trae Waynes, who arrived as a free agent last spring but missed the entire year because of a pectoral injury suffered in training camp. On Tuesday, the Bengals signed cornerback Eli Apple, an Ohio State product.

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Anarumo said how quickly they jell and get a feel for the way each other plays will depend on whether the Bengals have an offseason and normal training camp, but the third-year defensive coordinator doesn’t see three newcomers hindering the progress he seeks on defense.

“That will make it a little more challenging, but I don’t see it taking long,” Anarumo said. “The nice thing is we have two safeties that are in place. They can kind of adjust to things. For Jessie (Bates), this will be his third year. For Vonn (Bell), it’ll be his second. I think that can really help out. Those guys I know already are on a text string. They are all talking already, so that’s the good news. They have already reached out to each other. Those five guys need to be as thick as thieves. That’s how that works.”

Bengals coach Zac Taylor said he is excited to add both Hilton and Awuzie to the mix after having competed against both in the past and now having a chance to get to know them on a personal level. Anarumo said Awuzie is a complete package, bringing some length, physicality, a high football IQ and consistency at 6 foot, 200 pounds.

Taylor especially is glad his offense won’t have to block Hilton coming off the edge on blitzes anymore. After spending his first four seasons with the Steelers, Hilton brings a new element to the defense, as Cincinnati’s cornerbacks last year totaled six tackles for loss, no sacks and just two quarterback hits.

Hilton had eight tackles for loss, three sacks, five quarterback hits, three interceptions and two fumble recoveries in 2020, while playing just 12 games.

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“The way Mike pressures and the way he allows you to do certain things with him, we like to bring our edge guys, we like to bring our nickel and we like to bring our safeties,” Anarumo said. “He’ll fit right into what we have done. It’s really not that big of a difference to be quite honest when it comes to that part of it. I was talking to him (Thursday) and he was all excited.

“He’ll be doing similar things, providing pressure on the quarterback and TFLs like he did in Pittsburgh.”

Hilton had four sacks and eight quarterback hits as a rookie in 2017 and since then he’s had to change a few things as opponents started recognizing the type of blitz he could bring. He worked on learning quarterback cadences better and trying not to tip them with an inside look, and while it’s become more of a challenge to get a free run to the quarterback, he’s still excelled at it.

One thing he never got to do in Pittsburgh was try to bring down Ben Roethlisberger in practices. He’s confident now if given the chance, he could, despite his 5-foot-9, 184-pound stature.

“I trust my ability,” Hilton said. “I’m able to take down more athletic running backs that have his same size. If I get a chance to take my shot on Ben, it’s definitely gonna be fun.”

Going from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati, he’s leaving a team with a strong playoff history and coming to one still very much in a rebuilding phase. Hilton, 27, said he took notice of what the Bengals were trying to build over the last few years and seeing Joe Burrow last season gave him belief the team was ready to turn the corner.

As a guy who came into the league as an undrafted free agent, Hilton knows what it’s like to embrace the role of an “underdog.” Now as an established player, he wants to be a part of Cincinnati’s turnaround.

“Over these four years playing against these guys, I’ve seen the type of players that they had and what they were building,” Hilton said. “Once they brought in Joe (Burrow) to be the franchise guy, he showed me what he’s capable of and that definitely attracted me here. I’m excited to be here and get the train rolling.”

Awuzie, who was a second-round draft pick by the Cowboys in 2017, said he signed for similar reasons. He also believes a change of scenery could be beneficial to him.

The former University of Colorado standout recorded 213 tackles, four interceptions, 37 pass deflections, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries over four seasons but was limited to eight games last year because of a midseason injury.

“The main one is a chance of being a part of something special,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about Cincinnati in terms of signing here, in terms of the city. Never been to Ohio. It’s real exciting, just to hear about basically the team, the place, the heart of Cincinnati. It really was attractive to me. At the end of the day, I see opportunity the same way. I went to the University of Colorado and we weren’t a very good team. A lot of people doubted us and we were able to build something there that was special. A lot of those guys are some of my greatest friends at this point, too. I feel like through struggle, that’s when some of the best football starts being played and some of the best bonds get created. Real excited to do that.”

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