Joe Haden, the Steelers estimable cornerback, had just stepped off the practice field Thursday prepping for Sunday's 18th career game against the Bengals at Heinz Field (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) and he wasn't surprised to hear that old friend Mike Hilton is inspiring he Cincinnati defense this week.
Before the Bengals practiced Thursday for the AFC North's version of Athens-Sparta, left end Sam Hubbard revealed that Hilton had stood up before his new teammates on Monday to tell them how much this game meant to him this week.
"He's a passionate dude," Haden told Bengals.com. "This wasn't his first team. He came over here from the (Jaguars) and Patriots after he was undrafted and he just feels like he got looked over too many times. And then when he got the deal in Cincinnati I felt like he deserved to be the highest paid slot corner in the league. He deserves every penny that he got. I couldn't be more proud of the dude."
After last March's four-year, $24 million deal, Hilton is among the highest paid inside and he's proven to be worth his 184 pounds in gold.
"It's just who he is and how he's played the game, his mentality it what drew us to him," said Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo before Thursday's practice. "Obviously (the Steelers) have played great defense for a long time and he's been a part of it, but it was more about Mike and his play and how he approaches everything. Certainly coming from there doesn't hurt."
Certainly Haden mentored him. Hilton said as much back in training camp when he talked about the "Loaf Chart," he brought with him from Pittsburgh. Haden had devised it, a system where the defensive backs police themselves by literally paying for their mistakes in practice and then taking each other out to dinner at the end of camp. It included "Loafs," which means not going all out and busting to the ball.
"It was a thing I was doing in Cleveland," said Haden, the Browns' first draft pick of the 2010s when he went No. 7. "Just making sure we're getting to the ball. Especially when you have the best players that use that Loaf Chart when they're making plays and getting to the ball at practice. It's just so much easier for coaches to judge it if you've got your best players running around. Why isn't everybody else flying to the ball? Get everybody doing it the right way."
Haden brought it from Cleveland to Pittsburgh and now Hilton has brought it from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati and that's all the AFC North rivalries need is more incentive.
"Every team grades, but (Hilton) was definitely the one who said, we're going to do it this way. Everybody has goals, everybody has standards," said Bengals cornerback Chidobe Awuzie. "That was kind of the first time we were able to measure ourselves to a standard. Are you loafing? Are you having mental errors? Stuff like that. Mike brought that and did a great job. I think it helped a lot of people. Understand what we're supposed to be looking for on the field."
Hilton, the Georgian who went undrafted out of Mississippi, had been an easy target for Haden to embrace when he arrived in Pittsburgh from Cleveland for the 2017 season. Hilton, cut by the Jags and Pats, had just joined the Steelers practice squad at the end of his rookie season in 2016.
"Being in the league for so long, you see some of these drafted dudes coming in so cocky," Haden said. "You get these undrafted dudes, they're a lot more humble. They're just plain hungry and ready to listen. My thing is I'm always here to give people information. I really let my game speak for itself. But when I see dudes like Mike and these younger guys coming into the league, I can tell all they want is just some advice and be the best they can be. When you see dudes like him, especially an undrafted guy working his tail off and is just willing to grind it and love the game, it's easy for me to take guys like that under my wing."
Asked the difference between a Bengals-Browns game and a Bengals-Steelers game, Haden has a hard time leading you through that one.
"There is a lot of hatred in all of those games," Haden said. "Some people won't like the other one a little bit more, but it's just a very, very physical battle. You know what you're going to get when you see each other over time. Just generally, nobody in the AFC (North) likes each other."
But he knows what Hilton is bringing to the current chapter of the rivalry. Down through the years it's been defined by the Carson Palmer torn ACL (2005), the Bengals defense (2009's War of 18-12), Jeremy Hill's fumble (2015) and Ben Roethlisberger's winning TD pass with 10 seconds left against zero blitz (2018). Now Bengals strong safety Vonn Bell's Monday Night hit on JuJu Smith-Schuster (2020) takes us through the next few games.
"(Hilton) is the kind of guy you want in your locker room. He's a work-first guy," Haden said. "There's not too much rah-rah with Mike. He's not a big guy. But the way he blitzes and the way he is in the run game, that doesn't go unnoticed. That's why everyone on the team has so much respect for him. He's all about action. That's why he gets so much respect in the locker room."
Make no mistake. Hilton loves what he got from Haden and the other Steelers.
"It just taught me a lot of winning intangibles," Hilton said. "Being there for four years, I've been to the playoffs, been deep in the playoffs and just getting the experience and learning from guys that I played with like (Mike) Pouncey, (William) Gay, Ben just to name a few, and them just really teaching me how to how to be a leader and how to help bring a different culture to the organization."
But there it is. There's a new organization. He hosted the Bengals media contingent for a session during a week he politely (it is always politely with Hilton) declined a Pittsburgh interview request.
"And I brought that here," Hilton said of the culture, "and guys are buying in and I like where we're headed."
For the venerable AFC North vet Haden, all fair's in love and the division.
"At the end of the day it's a big fraternity and I've got so much love for Mike once we get off of the field," Haden said. "In between, it's going to be crazy. There's going to be a lot of trash talking. You know its JuJu and those two (in the slot) trying to get the best of each other. At the same time as soon as that game is over we'll hug it up and love on each other."