This Ex-Patriots Practice Squadder Will Play Key Role In Super Bowl LVI

'Mike Hilton never backed down from the challenge'


February 7, 2022

Cooper Kupp is the NFL’s premier pass-catcher, leading the NFL in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns this season.

The responsibility of covering him in Super Bowl LVI could fall to a player who once spent time on the New England Patriots’ practice squad.

That would be Cincinnati Bengals slot cornerback Mike Hilton, whose Patriots tenure lasted a grand total of nine days early in the 2016 season. An undrafted rookie at the time, he joined New England’s practice squad on Sept. 6, 2016 and was cut Sept. 14. After his release, it took Hilton nearly two months to land with a new team (the Pittsburgh Steelers) and a full season to make his official NFL debut.

But since that humble start, Hilton has developed into one of the league’s better nickel defenders. This season — his first with the Bengals after coming over from Pittsburgh in free agency — the 27-year-old graded out as Pro Football Focus’s 19th-best cornerback (out of 120 qualifiers).

With Kupp playing the majority of his snaps in the slot, Hilton likely will take the lead on defending the Los Angeles Rams superstar on Sunday. Bengals safety Jessie Bates III believes his teammate will be up to the task.

“At the beginning of this playoff run, Hunter Renfrow with the Raiders, he was one of their best-targeted guys,” Bates said Monday during Super Bowl Opening Night. “He was always getting the ball on those catch-and-run type of things. Mike Hilton never backed down from the challenge. I think he maybe even walked up to (defensive coordinator) Lou (Anarumo)’s offense like, ‘Hey, I want to always be on this guy.’ And that’s kind of the same mindset he’s had throughout this week.”

Renfrow, a 100-catch, 1,000-yard slot receiver for Las Vegas this season, finished that game with eight catches on 11 targets for 58 yards, but the bulk of his production came against other defenders. When matched up against Hilton, he managed just one catch on three targets for 6 yards with no first downs.

“I can’t speak enough about Mike,” Bates said. “He’s been the vocal leader that we’ve needed in our DB room. It was a great addition for us.”

Covering Kupp can’t be a one-man job, however. The Triple Crown winner dominated opposing secondaries all season (145 catches, 1,947 yards, 16 touchdowns in 17 games) and has been just as lethal in the playoffs, posting superb stat lines in LA’s wins over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-183-1) and San Francisco 49ers (11-142-2). Fellow Rams wideout Odell Beckham Jr. also has rediscovered his elite form of late, grabbing nine receptions for 113 yards in the NFC Championship Game.

“Sometimes, (Kupp) is not always to the nickel side, so I have to tell Mike, like, ‘Hey, let the other guys beat up on him a little bit, as well,’ ” Bates said. “But if anything, it just continues to give us confidence in guys who are ready to step up for that challenge, who’s not scared of maybe the ball’s always coming to them.

“That’s what separates this defense. We all know that we have to do our job. We’re not chasing plays. We just continue to do our job, and when you’re number’s called, you’ve got to make the play.”

Cincinnati’s defense is light on household names, but it’s been largely effective this postseason. Outside of a brutal start to the AFC Championship Game that featured touchdowns on the first three Kansas City Chiefs drives, the Bengals’ playoff opponents have reached the end zone just three times in 28 possessions, totaling 38 points while committing seven turnovers.

NESN’s big game coverage is presented by Berkshire Bank

Thumbnail photo via Katie Stratman/USA TODAY Sports Images
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