The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Bengals’ starless defense, the sum is greater than the mostly anonymous parts

Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton is something of a senior statesman for the defense. “It’s just a mixture of personalities and we just all mesh well,” he says. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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LOS ANGELES — If you’re a young NFL player living in Cincinnati, there’s little to do, apparently, so Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton has had plenty of time to imagine the Bengals’ secondary as sort of a sitcom family.

Hilton considers himself the dad of the group, a little more settled than the younger ones but still cool enough to vibe out to a Young Thug playlist before games. Cornerback Eli Apple, a former first-round draft pick of the New York Giants, would be the adopted little brother they rescued from bright lights and big expectations. Chidobe Awuzie, the one they call “Chido,” is the chill one who also now enjoys a drama-free life away from his former team. And safeties Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell are the perfect pairing of an odd couple — Bates brings the Zen, and Bell acts like the loud uncle in the room.

Hilton could have gone on, casting the rest of the defense: linebacker Logan Wilson as the interloper from Wyoming and defensive end Sam Hubbard as “Cincinnati’s own,” the local hero they all rally around. Maybe they would name this fictional show something corny like “Meet the Who Deys” and the season finale would end with confetti streaming down from SoFi Stadium following the city’s first Super Bowl championship.

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For this show to have that happy ending, sure, Joe Burrow and the rest of the stars on the Bengals’ offense will be the main writers of the script. But it’s the mostly anonymous defensive standouts who have created an organic and effective chemistry, playing a crucial role in the team’s surprising run to meet the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI.

“It’s just a mixture of personalities, and we just all mesh well,” Hilton said Friday.

As a unit, Cincinnati finished the regular season 17th overall in points allowed but owned the NFL’s fifth-best run defense. Only two starters remain from the 2019 season-opening lineup — which would go on to rank as one of the league’s worst — while the current group was quickly and effectively remade through free agency, trades and the draft.

On the surface, it seems like a collection of hodgepodge parts.

Both Apple and Awuzie, who spent the first four years of his career in Dallas, needed a change of scenery. Apple didn’t have the best time in New York or New Orleans, and even as his new team was marching along in the playoffs, he couldn’t help but take a swipe at both fan bases. Awuzie said this week he preferred the blue-collar mentality of the Bengals as opposed to the additional fluff that comes with playing for “America’s Team.”

In 2020, Cincinnati signed defensive tackle D.J. Reader and Bell. Last offseason, Hilton inked his four-year, $24 million deal. Now they may be valuable pieces, but all three carry memories of feeling underappreciated or overlooked. Reader was a backup at Clemson. Bell reportedly refused an offer to re-sign with the Saints, who promptly moved on from him. Hilton went undrafted out of college.

They don’t have the household name recognition like a few players on the Rams’ defense, and yet here they are.

“It’s just the collective group of the people we have,” said Hubbard, who went to high school at Cincinnati’s famed Archbishop Moeller before starring at Ohio State. “There’s so many great dudes. we just don’t have too many huge-name guys that are worried about themselves. Everybody’s worried about the team collective, what it takes to get the job done and whoever makes the play, I’m just as happy for them as if I made it, and that’s the mind-set across the board. Guys feel that and can play harder for that than just for themselves.”

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Reader put it even more plainly: “There’s no egos in the locker room.”

And these teammates have a relationship outside of the locker room. Reader said fight nights bring out a crowd.

“ ‘Hey, we’re watching the UFC fight here on Saturday. Pull up.’ And guys pulling up,” Reader said. “Guys going out. Hanging out. Whatever you’re doing, you’re just around guys.

“A lot of guys on this team are really friends,” he added.

Hilton recalled how the secondary had a tradition during the season to gather to watch Monday and Thursday night games. This kinship works because guys enjoy each other’s company, and the small town feel of their home market has something to do with it. As a party town, Cincinnati may be lacking. But it’s the perfect setting for an ensemble cast with a key role in football’s biggest game.

“Like Joe said a couple weeks [ago], there’s not much to do in Cincinnati,” Hilton said, smiling and almost whispering this into the microphone. “So we kind of just vibe with each other. That’s what’s important, chemistry on and off the field. If you can trust them off the field, you know you can trust them on it. It’s something we thrive off.”