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Hallmark: #nflsmostunderratedcb?

Posted May 25, 2013

Leon Hall, the Bengals throwback cornerback who doesn’t have a Twitter account or dabble on Facebook, talks about himself in the missing person instead of the nauseating third or the relentless first.


Leon Hall

Leon Hall, the Bengals throwback cornerback who doesn’t have a Twitter account or dabble on Facebook, talks about himself in the missing person instead of the nauseating third or the relentless first.

He'd rather win a couple of Super Bowls, he says, instead of going to six Pro Bowls, and when defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer put him in the slot during the second half of last season it helped jumpstart Cincinnati's run to the postseason.

But you can get him going pretty good on the other Leon Hall. Leon Hall Jr.

Hall gave his four-year-old son what he calls his "second passion" to go with a plastic set of golf clubs two years ago. Since then he's moved Little Leon up to a sawed-off driver, seven-iron, and putter, and Dad says he could see Little Leon pulling a Tiger Woods as a baby golf prodigy on the talk show circuit.

"I can almost guarantee he would go on the show and it would be better than Tiger Woods," Hall predicts with uncharacteristic bombast. "My son is pretty good. He's a natural golfer."

But when Dad is asked about his chances to make the NFL Network's top 100 players from 2012, he's back to his old self-effacing self.

"I'd be surprised if I was in the top 500," Hall says.

Some of that is his signature modesty. Some of it, too, is that he knows the hilarity of rankings because everyone has them. (A total of 481 players voted, which is less than a third of the league.)

And some of it may also be sarcasm stemming from his Arctic-calm confidence that has helped make him the best NFL cornerback nobody knows.

Hall, 28, heads into his seventh year with the Bengals after a remarkable season that should have done more than put him on the radar. A mere 302 days after tore his Achilles on Nov. 13, 2011 against the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium, Hall was not only an Opening Day starter but he was the club's best player down the stretch for a team the defense carried into the playoffs.

"The level of play he had last year, when you mention the top corners in the league his name has to be mentioned," says Terence Newman, the third different corner to start opposite Hall on the three Bengals playoff teams since 2009. "He's technically and fundamentally sound. He's so fluid. His change of direction is amazing. For me to be able to see that last year firsthand, it was pretty impressive to watch."

There are people that know and they are the ones that get paid to watch film for a living. Solomon Wilcots and Artrell Hawkins are former NFL defensive backs. And Newman has gone to two Pro Bowls playing the position in the NFC and AFC with a total of 146 starts.

"He's one of the top 100 players in the league and he's certainly a top five corner," says Wilcots, the former Bengals safety who works for The Network itself after earning his degree in defense playing for coordinator Dick LeBeau in Cincinnati.

"What you love about him is that he's an all-around corner. Everybody gets so caught-up in being a cover corner, but like Dick LeBeau always talked about, you have to be a football player. He tackles well, he can play the zone. He can pattern read from the off position in a zone, which is hard to do. He's smart, instinctive, intuitive. All the things that corners are supposed to be and so many aren't."

Don't look for Hall on Pro Football Focus's top 101 players, either. Three Bengals made the list and while defensive tackle Geno Atkins (No. 3), wide receiver A.J. Green (No. 41) and safety Reggie Nelson (No. 99) are well-earned, Hawkins has trouble with nine cornerbacks being on that list and not one of them is Hall.

With Tampa Bay's Darrelle Revis shelved most of last season with an ACL injury, PFF tapped Seattle's Richard Sherman the top corner as the fifth-ranked player and Chicago's Charles Tillman the second corner at No. 19 overall. Hawkins puts Hall ahead of those two, among others, such as Antonio Cromartie (No. 33) and Champ Bailey (No. 98).

"Revis is my No. 1. I have Leon in my top five and I don't put many in front of him. He's in that discussion behind Revis, that 1A-1B category," says Hawkins, who started 72 games for the Bengals at corner before morphing into his current starter role as a co-host for Fox Sports Radio's national morning drive.

"He's as consistent and as reliable as it gets. He doesn't gamble. He studies film. He works on his craft. He's always where he's supposed to be and he's got tremendous versatility. He can play all five positions back there."

Hawkins so admires Hall's game that when he interned at the Steelers a few years back with LeBeau, he showed cornerback Ike Taylor tape of Hall's footwork and fundamentals.

"Those are two corners that are really undervalued," Hawkins says.

Wilcots says Hall doesn't get the recognition because his game is based on blue-collar versatility and not flash-drive heroics. "Tackling a guy short of the first down on third down should get you to the Pro Bowl, but it doesn't," he says.

Newman thinks part of the reason Hall doesn't get his due is because the Bengals haven't made playoff runs that get them exposed on national TV long enough. Hawkins ventures it's because Hall doesn't seek the limelight but, instead, embraces the opportunity to be a leader in the secondary's meeting room.

"He doesn't back away from helping the young guys," Hawkins says. 

Whatever the reason, it certainly doesn’t appear to bother the man himself.

"I'd rather do my job under the radar as opposed to being in the spotlight," Hall says. "That's kind of the way we were raised. I just go about my business."

Hall was raised tough and untraditionally on the outskirts of San Diego in Vista, Calif. His mother, a single parent, died in her sleep of a heart ailment at age 37 when her only son was heading into junior high and it was left to his older sisters and uncle to raise him. His sisters worked and his uncle was a field supervisor for a scaffolding company in the Los Angeles area.

The experience lives in his community work, which is geared to single parents and children without families. The Halls' Christmas season tradition is brightening up the Children's Home of Northern Kentucky for abused, neglected and at-risk kids.

But he doesn’t buy that the blue-collar background translates to his quest to be normal and unnoticed.

"You see a lot of guys that come from that background that aren't that way," Hall says. "I just think it's my personality."

The Revis-Sherman Twitter War several weeks back took Hall back a bit. He's not a social media guy, but he can understand why people like it.

"I don’t need it. I think it's kind of neat because it's so immediate, but it's just not for me," Hall says.

And certainly Revis and Sherman trashing each other about who's better just didn't feel right to Hall.

"I didn't think it was very necessary," he says. "They're both obviously really good corners and to go back and forth, it just wasn't needed. I don't think it proved the case for anything. Right or wrong, good or bad. It was just unnecessary. Obviously Sherman has been playing great. Revis was hurt, but he's been great. Who's to say?"

Revis, picked 14th by the Jets in 2007 out of Pittsburgh, is a four-time Pro Bowler. Hall, picked four slots later by the Bengals out of Michigan, has yet to go to one. Here are the stats according to profootballreference.com:

In 81 starts, Hall has 22 interceptions and counting the return in the Wild Card playoff game last year he has three TDs to go with 245 tackles. In 79 starts, Revis has 19 picks, three TDs, and 241 tackles.

Stats, particularly at corner, don't mean much. It doesn't take into account scheme, situations or assignments. But Hall doesn't consider Revis a measuring stick even though they were drafted within the hour and were born six months apart.

"I just measure myself up to me," Hall says. "I can't do what he does. I can't do what the next man does. I just do what I need to do.

"It could be a lot of things," Hall says of the difference between him and Revis. "One thing I don't like to do is get into comparisons. What if I was there and he were here? Who's to say? Who knows? That's not the way it is. This is the way it is. That's why I just compare myself to myself."

But Hall does say he thinks Revis is the best corner in the league because "I like a lot of the things he does in bump-and-run."

The Bengals have only eyes for Hall. To show what they think of his versatility and acumen and how he sees himself as a player, you have to go inside in the middle of last season, where Zimmer put Hall in the slot with all the rest of the fundamentals.

BRAINS AND BRAWN

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is surveying a third-and-four from the Steelers 13 late in a scoreless first quarter of last season's AFC North Wild Card Game in which the winner goes to the playoffs.

As he has since pretty much the bye week, Hall moves into the slot in the nickel package to cover the inside receiver and this time it is tight end Heath Miller lining up as part of a bunch formation.

"His knowledge of the game is higher than a lot of guys," Newman says. "He can reel off different things that Zim says. Different coverages. He can tell you what that guy does or this guy does."

Roethlisberger lets it go over the middle and Hall is there instead of Miller. He picks it off and runs 17 yards for Cincinnati's only touchdown and a 7-0 lead the Bengals never lost in a 13-10 victory.

When Hall thinks about that pick in Pittsburgh, he thinks of Zimmer's call.

"We were in a nickel package against their two tight-end sets, so it was a good call on Zimmer's part," Hall says. "Sometimes we'd be in regular or base, but he was thinking pass for sure because he had the better cover guys out there."

But in addition to the call, Hall was relying on not only his prep of the last week, but the experience of the last five years.

"We were in man-to-man, and just going from film study and some of the looks they give us and they gave us in years past and earlier in the season, they only run a few routes out of that depending on the situation," Hall says. "They were in a bunch formation. The way Miller released, I kind of had an idea. He released more vertical and tried to get me to think he was going outside. But that kind of gave it away a little bit. I was able to get in front of him. I was able to catch it, which impressed a lot of people."

It was an intermediate route, not a seam or post, but Hall won’t say what tipped him off.

"He might do it again," Hall says.

When Zimmer opted to put Hall in the slot on passing downs with Newman and Adam Jones, Hall's versatility allowed Zimmer to be more flexible. With the slot taken care of, he could double-team other receivers and since Hall plays so physical and tackles so well, Zimmer could also be confident the running game would be defended when he used umbrella or shell defenses to force quarterbacks to throw into zones.

"I really like it when they put him in the slot," Wilcots says. "I thought it hurt Leon a little when Johnathan Joseph left (before the 2011 season) on the other side. Teams were able to go away from him some, but going inside allows him to make more plays."

Hall's most visible effort in the slot came against Giants Pro Bowler Victor Cruz. With the Bengals rolling to a 31-13 win over the Super Bowl champs, the amazing stat isn't that Cruz caught just three balls for 26 yards but that he was targeted just four times despite coming into the game with the third-most targets in the NFL.

"It's because he's so smart," Zimmer said of putting Hall inside. "He's tough, he's a good blitzer. He understands where he's supposed to be all the time. I think he would be a great safety. He's a good corner. He's a good nickel. Sometimes he's playing safety, sometimes he's playing corner. Sometimes he's (replacing) a linebacker. We ask him to do a lot of things."

Then the ultimate Zimmer compliment: "He knows this defense inside and out. Maybe as well as I do."

Hall may be able to play all over, but he likes the slot and maybe because it is one of the grimy, blue-collar jobs in the defense.

"It's very unglamorous, which is how I like it," Hall says. "I like the change-up of it. Being inside, I like how, especially in our defense for the most part, it’s just you and this guy. And then sometimes on third down you get to have fun a little bit and get to blitz. Sometimes I'm in the deep half of the play like a safety. It's a fun switch-up and I'm used to it from college, and it's been fun.

"I like to think of myself as well-rounded. Say if Zim asks me to do something I've never done, I'd probably tell him I could do it."

Wilcots sounds as if the Bengals didn't draft him, but built him in an underground PBS lab.

"He's the Dick LeBeau, Mike Zimmer, Marvin Lewis type of player," Wilcots says. "Cerebral. Tough. Instinctive and is always where he's supposed to be."

Wait, maybe this is the ultimate Zimmer compliment:

Maybe the do-it-all Hall, in the next two or three years, or maybe even sooner, solves the great safety question if Zimmer chooses to do some chicken wiring.

"We're not going to get into that conversation," Zimmer says.

GREEN PASTURES 

This is what Zimmer talks about. Hall's laser-like focus that has conquered everything from the Steelers to golf to the most horrific injury a cornerback can endure.

Hall's rehab, which began smoothly with surgery by Cincinnati foot icon Jim Amis, is now the textbook study for every Bengal coming off a traumatic injury. The first rule is that if the player comes back at all, he won't be as good in Year 1 as he will be in Year 2.

But Hall shattered that principle taking the first snap of the last training camp when he was penciled in to start the season on the physically unable to perform list (PUP).

"He had a good surgery, he was as compliant as any patient you could get, and he's blessed," says Bengals trainer Paul Sparling. "I'm not sure he can get better physically. He had as full and complete recovery as he could get."

Hall thinks it was simply because of his mindset. He went in assuming he would be back for the first day of training camp and never thought about PUP or anything other than starting in Baltimore on Sept. 10.

Nick Cosgray, the Bengals chief of rehab, thinks it is because every time he turned around, there was Hall. He never missed a day on the comeback trail. Cosgray laughs about the wedge that is still hanging around the training room. If Hall had some down time during the rehab, he'd work on his golf swing. If he couldn't work on his first passion, he'd go to the second.

"Whatever he's doing, golf, whatever, he wants to be the best," Zimmer says. "You can't get him off the field in practice. He'll take every rep."

Hall is taking some pretty good ribbing in the training room now. When he tore a ligament in his thumb a few months ago while lifting, the joke was he was covering up a golf injury. Hall just shrugged. He's back swinging and he's expected back on the field in OTAs the first week of June.

Focus. It's how Hall went from starting to fiddle with golf in 2008, taking it seriously in 2010, and now shoots in the mid-80s at his course, Cincinnati's iconic Kenwood Country Club.

"I love golf so much because if you hit a bad shot, it's really because of you. Without a doubt, it's something you did," Hall says. "It carries over to football. If I give up a play or give up a catch, whether its five yards or 50 yards, I always try to think back what I did wrong."

Some say the No. 1 trait an NFL corner has to have is competitiveness and you only have to go as far as Hall's golf game. It all began after his rookie season when wife Jessica, a golfer since 12, took him to a par three course "and she beat me pretty badly," he says. "That was my motivation. ... Now if I shoot in the high 80s, it's a bad day."

Hall also takes heat for his high-class golfing wardrobe, often being accused of walking off a Golf Digest cover. But one of the reasons he attended his third Masters last month is because he can put on sunglasses and melt in with the gallery.

"Nobody knows me and I can just sit back and watch all those great golfers," Hall says.

He'll leave it to the guys that watch film to find him in a crowd.

 

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