Jeremy Hill looks to be back in the flow.
It turned out to be 85 games and two Achilles' ruptures between AFC Defensive Player of the Week awards for Bengals cornerback Leon Hall and it shows how much his game has evolved.
When he won it in the next-to-last week of the 2008 season with a club-record three interceptions in Cleveland, he was a second-year player just beginning a very good career as one of the top every-down cornerbacks in the NFL. But he rarely played in the slot. According to profootballfocus.com, that season he played just 111 snaps in there and when Chris Crocker solidified his role in the slot in 2009, Hall played it just 12 times.
But as Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer kept coaching him, he began to see Hall's physicality and savvy were perfect for the inside. By 2012, when Hall had his best season and was rated the NFL's No. 1 slot corner by PFF, he took 288 of his 904 snaps in the slot. After he ruptured his Achilles a second time in 2013, he came back last year and was PFF's ninth best in the slot with 364 of his 934 snaps in the slot.
Now this award comes with Hall only as a slot corner just a few days after he scored the Bengals' first defensive touchdown of the season on a 19-yard pick-six.
A week shy of his 31st birthday and with a sometimes balky back, Hall is far from a benchwarmer as the third corner. He's still on pace to play 736 snaps, but his coaches believe less is more and the PFF ratings would say so. Last year he finished ranked 46th among corners and he's currently ranked 14th, seventh in the slot.
"Less is probably better to keep him heathy and keep him playing at a high level," said cornerbacks coach Vance Joseph before Wednesday's practice, where Hall didn't work and rested his back. "So far it's worked for him and worked for us."
Joseph, like Zimmer, believes he's got the perfect guy for such a demanding position. He says a slot corner has to be a cross between a defensive back and linebacker.
"Because in the run game he's really more involved than the corner would be," Joseph says. "In the pass game he's involved with a slot player who is usually their best short passing game option and is a quicker guy. He's done a great job in that role. Most guys don't take pride in it. With everybody playing so many three-receiver sets, it really is a starting position."
Cincinnati Bengals host St. Louis Rams at Paul Brown Stadium in week 12 of the regular season.
Hall hasn't talked to the media since the season began, which has made people wonder if he's unhappy with not being a starter any more. But he's certainly not playing like it. He's always been one of the true pros in the locker room and remains so.
Joseph would say there's been an adjustment.
"Anytime someone's been an every down starter, it takes a certain guy to be humble enough to understand his role and where he is in his career and he's done a good job of that,' Joseph said.
The Bengals took some heat before the season for keeping Hall in the last year of his deal at a salary cap number near $10 million. But with second-year cornerback Darqueze Dennard on injured reserve for the rest of the year and Hall playing so well, it looks like more than the right move.
"He's an experienced guy, he's smart, he's tough,' Joseph said. "He's played a bunch of football. To be a great slot corner, it takes experience. It takes feel."
HILL TAKES HEED: During his two-year tenure as the Bengals offensive coordinator, Hue Jackson has challenged everyone from top to bottom. For instance, it was his conversation with quarterback Andy Dalton shortly after last season that has spurred his best season on the field and in the locker room.
And the day before last Sunday's game against the Rams, Jackson went one-on-one with Jeremy Hill, in the throes of a sluggish sophomore season after a 1,000-yard rookie year.
"I think there is a time you know a guy has maybe gone too far the other way and you have to
reel him back. That's one of the hats a coordinator wears and you have to wear," Jackson said after Wednesday's practice. "There are so many things you involve them in at the same time. I'm responsible for the group before me. The guy has scored a lot of touchdowns but we know he's not running like he has the ability to run. This guy is a tremendous football player. I think his best days are still ahead of him. I've always said that and they still are. He recognizes what he needs to do and he got back to his focus in my opinion of what he needed to do and I think we are seeing the fruits of that."
Hill responded with his best game of the season, an 86-yard effort that actually raised his yards per carry to 3.5. Jackson said he even liked how Hill ran in the two-yard gains. According to PFF, Hill had 45 yards after contact Sunday. He has averaged 25 per game.
"We had a good conversation and I'll leave it at that," Jackson said. "It was just between me and him. He had some feelings and I did too. We shared them and moved on. He played his butt off last week and we will build off one game."
But Jackson made it clear that he needs more than one big game from Hill and passed another message to him.
"I think we're just starting to see the tip of Jeremy. Jeremy can run. We all know that," Jackson said. "We've all seen it. I told you guys he'll get back to doing what he needs to do. I'm not concerned about it. I wasn't concerned about it. I just think there is a time and a place. Now is the time and this is the place."
Hue Jackson would cast an All Pro vote for Ryan Hewitt.
HUE ON HEW: Jackson would cast an All Pro ballot for fullback Ryan Hewitt right now and he'd understand if you looked at him a little funny.
"He's one of our unsung hero players," Jackson said. "He doesn't get enough credit. The guy is really good at what he does."
What the undrafted Hewitt does is a little bit of everything. He's a tenacious blocker at both fullback and tight end and working off the line he's averaging nearly 15 yards per his five catches after two on Sunday.
"There's a lot of things he can do. There's a lot of things I don't allow him to do just because we have other people doing it but his role is always expanding. He's always doing more," Jackson said. "The guy is tough, rugged. He's going to go hit you, finish you and likes to play."
PFF lists him as a fullback, but that's the problem because he's much more than that. The web site has him with an NFL-leading 286 snaps at fullback, but many of them have come as a tight end. He's ranked sixth as a pass receiver and 15th as a blocker and Jackson uses that versatility to make him one of the more unique players in the league.
"He's one of the better players on our team," Jackson said. "What he does a lot of people can't do. I value what he does."