Thursday, November 12, 2009
Bengals Defensive Stars Turning Corner
CINCINNATI -- When an NFL player begins to touch the stratosphere alongside the prized peers in his craft, well, that is an elusive, special time -- a time when, instead of the player solely looking outward, others start to look his way.
A time when a player turns the corner.
For Cincinnati Bengals cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall (pictured), it is that time.
Put aside their similar size, their quick feet and hands, and their youth. For Joseph and Hall, it is playmaking that is primary. Each has become a cornerstone of the Bengals defense -- two men on football's trickiest, most demanding island who are leaving receivers hungry and thirsty.
The Bengals (6-2) lead the AFC North after these cornerbacks choked the Baltimore Ravens' receivers last Sunday -- particularly constricting shifty veteran Derrick Mason -- in a 17-7 Bengals victory. Next up for Cincinnati are the Pittsburgh Steelers' dangerous duo of Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes, along with rookie speedster Mike Wallace.
Of course, Joseph and Hall are in the spotlight, in part, because of what they have already done against this Pittsburgh group. In Week 3 on Sept. 27, Holmes was held to one catch for 18 yards and none of Pittsburgh's receivers reached the end zone in Cincinnati's 23-20 victory. Joseph added a 30-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Bengals' upset win.
At Pittsburgh on Sunday, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis knows that, for Joseph and Hall, the results could be famine or feast.
Lewis is banking on the table his star cornerbacks have already set.
"One play, one game and everything can change, because that is the nature of the cornerback position in the NFL,'' Lewis said. "But they are playing good football. And having been a part of a championship team in this league, I can tell you that a team can't win it without exceptional cornerback play. You have to have that on the edges of your defense to be a special team. It is not an accident that we are getting that now and we are playing good defensive football.''
Joseph is 25 years old; Hall turns 25 in December. Joseph is 5-foot-11, 193 pounds, while Hall stands 5-foot-11, 199 pounds. Each cornerback has four interceptions this season. Joseph has 24 solo tackles, Hall 34.
Joseph was a first-round Bengals pick in 2006. Hall was a first-round Bengals pick in 2007.
Their lockers are side-by-side in the Bengals locker room. Their talents are complementary, too.
"Leon is a tough guy -- great speed and he fits in run support,'' Joseph said. "I spent one year in Division I ball before I got to South Carolina and then here. Leon coming from Michigan came from a bigger school and program. We both feed off each other.''
Both are excelling in man coverage, allowing Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to be more exotic with the rest of the Bengals defense. Cornerbacks who do not need a ton of over-the-top help are a defensive coach's dream.
And give the Bengals this -- they invested highly in these cornerbacks. They spent two first-round picks on two cornerbacks who are, indeed, becoming first-rate.
"We try to keep receivers off balance, keep them guessing,'' Hall said. "Johnathan is real quick. He has make-up speed he uses on receivers. People don't know how smart he is. He tells me things on the sideline I can use. He wants to be great. We both do.
"We pride ourselves on our work. We work a lot on technique. We do a whole lot of film study, probably more than the norm. It's extreme. We really try to understand what an offense is trying to do. We get along great off the field. It seems like we've played together a lot. It's gone fast.''
It is going faster. The Bengals are tied for first place in the AFC North halfway through their season, and their standout pair of cornerbacks are a key part of their hopes for the second half and beyond.
But Cincinnati has not won in Pittsburgh since 2006 -- in recent seasons, it has been Pittsburgh's Ike Taylor who has been the prominent cornerback when these teams battle. That's no longer the case.
Lewis credits the addition of free-agent safety Chris Crocker in 2008 with boosting the maturation of Joseph and Hall. Crocker spent three seasons with the Cleveland Browns, two with the Atlanta Falcons and one season with the Miami Dolphins before becoming a Bengal.
"I don't think they [Joseph and Hall] knew what hard work was until he showed up,'' Lewis said of Crocker. "He has helped make them better players. He has challenged them.''
Now Joseph and Hall challenge others.
And the league is taking notice.
"We definitely look at other corners,'' Hall said. "But we feel like we are kind of coming into our own.'