Matchup of the Game: mind over matter

Posted Sep 4, 2014

Bengals cornerback Leon Hall had to conquer the mental game to start this Opening Day (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) in Baltimore. He'll also have to use it to defend new Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr.




Take another bow, Nick Cosgray and Paul Sparling.

Cosgray, the Bengals director of rehab, and Sparling, the Bengals head trainer, have made certain for the second time in three seasons at Sunday’s opener in Baltimore (1 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Local 12) that Hall answers the bell after tearing his Achilles’ in mid-season.

The last time Hall came back, he missed the 2012 NFL Comeback Player of the Year award by a neck. Peyton Manning’s neck. Hall played at a Pro Bowl level and now at age 29 and heading into his eighth season, the Bengals are hoping that’s the same guy they get.

They should have a pretty good idea Sunday as the Ravens line up at wide receiver with the dangerously fleet Torrey Smith and the productive, combative Steve Smith Sr. After 13 years as the Panthers’ passing offense, Smith is now a Raven at age 35 with a gold-studded resume.

Through sheer will the 5-9, 195-pound Smith has racked up more than 4,700 yards after catch. Only Terrell Owens and Wes Welker have more YAC in the last 20 years, a stretch only four receivers have more 25-plus-yard catches.

The 5-11, 195-pound Hall played against Smith once in 2010 and helped hold him without a catch until less than 10 minutes left in a Bengals’ victory that came courtesy of Jimmy Clausen’s first NFL start.

“It doesn’t look like he’s aged five or six years,” says Hall, who feels the biggest challenge against Smith is the mental game he likes to play.

Smith finished 24th overall in’s wide receiver ratings last year and was just 65th in yards after catch. But don’t tell that to Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons.

Simmons coached Smith in his first two seasons in Carolina and saw him go to the Pro Bowl in a rookie season that began when he returned the first kickoff of the year for a touchdown. His return days are long gone, but Simmons knows what the Bengals defense is going to get.

“He’s somebody I have a lot of respect for. I still follow him. He’s probably the most competitive person I’ve ever met,” Simmons says. “He takes it personal. The way he gets through it is he thinks everybody is against him. That fuels him. He knows they’re not, but that’s what fuels him. He is a smarter guy and he plays with a huge heart.  He never went down easy. Look what he’s done the last few years in Carolina. He’s been leading the passing attack all the time.”

Smith sounds almost at peace after he was summarily dispatched from Carolina despite being a franchise icon.

“I don’t think I have to prove myself, just because what I’ve done this far despite the way things have transpired down there, in Carolina, it doesn’t erase or take away from anything,” Smith says. “And so that’s one of the things that I have really come at peace with, is understanding just because I’m in a new team, a new conference, a new division, new circumstances doesn’t erase that over there. But it doesn’t carry over to where I don’t work hard and I don’t inject myself into learning the culture in a way of playing as a Baltimore Raven.:”

But Hall isn’t buying the mellowing bit. He’s the nickel slot and while he’s surprised Smith didn’t show up much in the slot this preseason, Hall knows exactly what he’ll see and hear.

 “He looks good as far as his style of play. He’s the same receiver when he was at Carolina,” Hall says. “Aggressive, chippy, confident, talkative Steve Smith. But obviously a good player. He’s explosive at the line. He’s not that big, but he’s pretty strong so he’s able to get out of jams and presses. Definitely one of the quickest and toughest guys I’ve played.”

“He’s known for it, but I still think that it’s a little underrated in his game,” Hall says. “It’s the mental aspect of it. He can get inside your head. He can talk you into doing something you probably shouldn’t do.”

Even the stoic Hall says he’ll have to exert some willpower so he doesn’t get caught up in the mind games. He can’t compare Smith to another Pro Bowl talker, Hall’s teammate for four seasons, wide receiver Chad Johnson.

“Chad is more of a happy talker. Steve Smith is more aggressive when he talks,” Hall says. “You don’t listen to him. You block it out, you laugh it off, take it with a grain of salt, whatever you want to call it. Do whatever you have to do so he doesn’t take you out of the game you want to play. You hope to quiet him early in the game and hope it stays that way.”



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