Mike Hilton, one of the new Bengals to be introduced Friday morning via Zoom when they visit Paul Brown Stadium to sign their deals, has already been here and had a front-row seat back on a Monday night in December when his new strong safety made a hit they hope sets the tone for the coming years.
Indeed, Hilton, the feisty former Steelers slot cornerback, has already exchanged a few texts with Vonn Bell, the Play of the Year instigator. It was Bell's hit on Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in the Bengals' 27-17 victory over Pittsburgh that caused a fumble, an uproar, and helped the Bengals' case as they courted Hilton.
"Over the last couple of years I really liked his style. His kind of play and my kind of play goes hand in hand," Hilton says of the take-no-prisoners approach. "And Jessie Bates is one of the best free safeties in the game.
"I feel like having those guys over the top of me and just signing (Chidobe) Awuzie and getting Trae Waynes on the outside, I feel like this secondary is really beginning to come together," Hilton says, referencing his fellow cornerbacks. "We're young guys. Once we get on that same wave length, I feel like we can be dangerous."
They will certainly be different. All three starting cornerbacks are slated to make their first Bengals start on Opening Day. The only defensive starter left from just 32 games ago, the 2018 finale, is Bates.
The Bengals are looking to add some offensive free agents, too. Vikings left tackle Riley Reiff spent Thursday visiting the team and while they have an offer out to Lions wide receiver Kenny Golladay, they've got company with the Giants and Bears.
Bell, one of six starters inked in the last two free agencies, has been watching Hilton, too. He's hard to miss even though he's just 5-9, 185 pounds. But he plays with 6-5 passion. In four seasons Hilton not only has seven interceptions, but the Steelers let him loose on the blitz and he's got 9.5 career sacks along with a perennial top eight ranking in Pro Football Focus' chart for cornerback pressures.
"When we get this thing moving the way it should, it's making those impact plays that get the team going," Bell says. "It's going to be an avalanche. It will be a free fall the right way.
"(Hilton) says he likes what we're building in the room. I love his mindset. His demeanor. He's playing the game the right way. That's what I'm happy about. Can't wait to get all the guys together and get this thing rolling."
Bengals cornerbacks coach Steven Jackson, who played in the AFC Central of the 1990s, has watched the Steelers cornerbacks blitz since they were Carnell Lake and Rod Woodson. Even though it's not the same system, he says Hilton can use the same skills.
"He's a versatile player. We try to put guys in position to do what they do best," Jackson said. "We've got him to use him. He's a good zone player and he doesn't get enough respect for his ability to play man."
Hilton believes defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo is going to get the best out of him because there's a lot there.
"I think I'm bringing an opportunity for a defense to be more dimensional," Hilton says. "Blitz me, I can drop into a zone, I can roll to the safety. I can do it all. I feel like Coach Lou is a guy that's definitely going to use me in different ways."
But he's only going to play one way. He's an undrafted free agent (Mississippi) and that's the kind of hungry approach Bell senses is forming on this defense with pickups like Hilton and edge rusher Trey Hendrickson.
"I play with an edge," Hilton says. "I may not be the most outspoken guy, but I feel like my energy and edge is what I bring. It helps spark the defense. That's what I'm going to bring to Cincy."
And he has noticed the guy on the other side of the ball, too. The fit, he says, fits.
"Being in the AFC North, I've kept an eye on them," Hilton says. "They drafted (Joe) Burrow last year. They definitely have a franchise quarterback to build around, so I'm excited to play with him. I felt like it was the right fit for me."