Cornerstones


Leon Hall

Posted: 7:40 a.m.

It is a back-to-work Wednesday and the password is "Defense" in a week the Bengals have scaled to No. 1 in scoring defense, No. 3 in rush defense and No. 6 overall. Once the redheaded stepchild, the Bengals defense is now heir to the playoff fortune.

Quarterback Carson Palmer is talking about how this is the most faith he's ever had in this defense in seven seasons.

"I talk to (assistant linebackers coach) Paul Guenther and Coach (Mike) Zimmer, and they say that if we get 17 points, we're good. We keep them fresh," Palmer says.  "We keep them in the spirit where they feel like we have to go three-and-out, three-and-out, three-and-out. We keep that mentality on our defense where they can go three-and-out against anybody. If we're going three-and-out, our defense is consistently on the field. We try to keep them fresh, try to control the field position to put the opposition offense in a situation where they have to go 80 (yards) to score. There's not many offenses that can do that against our D. The more we help them out, the more they help us out. It's a winning formula."

One of the big reasons, cornerback Johnathan Joseph, motions down several lockers.

"Ask him about the checklist Hue Jackson put in my locker when I was a rookie," he says with a gleam in his eye.

It seems that wide receiver Chad Ochocinco is talking trash again. He is asked what would happen if the Bengals cornerbacks were ever on his world-famous checklist.

"I'd kill 'em," The Ocho says. "I know all their weaknesses."

Joseph, who along with Leon Hall has emerged as one of the NFL's leading cornerback tandems in a season the Bengals have taken control of the AFC North on third down, isn't so sure about that as he invokes the name of Jackson, the Bengals receivers coach when Joseph was a rookie in 2006.

"(Jackson) would put a checklist in his locker with my name on it and I was the only one that could guard him," Joseph says.

Hall came the next year, like Joseph, in the first round, and now defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer sits in his office and says, "We're only as good as our corners. If they play good, we play good."

Guess what?

Only three times this season has a team's top receiving target led his team in receptions when it played the Bengals if you count Hines Ward as the Steelers go-to-receiver: Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson with eight catches for 135 yards, Chicago wide receiver Devin Hester with eight catches for 101 yards, and Oakland tight end Zach Miller with five catches for 65 yards.

And two of those games the Bengals lost.

Zimmer says some teams have the prolific pass rushers or the mountainous run stuffers that set the tone for their defense. Here it is the cornerback tandem. It is partly style and partly the enormity of their talent. If Joseph has the Pro Bowl athleticism, Hall's all-around talent and consistency have some saying he's the team's best defensive player.

"They carry us in their back pocket; I remind them of that all the time," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "That's the nature of how we play defense. There's different ways to do it, and that's the way we're structured and I've done it, that's the way we are. We need those guys to play well in order for us to get things done. They've had outstanding years, both of them."

Now comes another threat.

"We've got our hands full this week," said secondary coach Kevin Coyle and he's just not talking about Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson.

Yes, the freakish 6-5 Johnson has 14.8 yards per his 41 catches, but the Johnson on the other side, Bryant, is fast enough to average 13.3 yards per his 25 catches. Calvin, of course, is going to get the Bengals' share of Lions attention.

"He's bigger than those guys and just as fast," says Joseph of the Brandon Marshalls and Santonio Holmes and Greg Jennings he and Hall have shut down.

Coyle says it's pretty simple when you've got good players…

"When you've got good players and they understand the scheme we have and what the opponent is doing," Coyle says. "It's a credit to the guys. They've bought into studying the opponent and understanding how we plan to attack in our game plan. They've been good challenging guys and not giving up big plays over the top. That's a big key."

Since the Bengals finished October leading the league in allowing passes of 20 yards or more, they shut it down in November by allowing just five 20-plusses. And in that month of Sundays, foes couldn't come near them in the all-important conversion game.

In four November games offenses were just 12-for-50 converting third downs against the Bengals. They are fifth in the league for the season at holding teams to 34 percent on third down, a number they've reached only once in club history and that was in the strike-shortened season of 1982. It truly is rarified air in Bengaldom. Only six times since the first Super Bowl season of 1981 have the Bengals been under 40 percent and only once in Lewis' six previous seasons.

"A lot of it is study," Hall said. "We have that third-down meeting every Thursday with Coach Coyle and that helps."

Coyle convenes the third-down group every Thursday around lunch time with the defensive backs, linebackers and defensive ends involved in pass coverage.

"It gives us a chance to isolate certain things they're doing and break it down on how we plan to attack it," Coyle says. "We go through a tape on what we should expect going through different down and distances. If we try to give a certain look, they can see it on the tape and we can talk about how we can try to do something off of this or that."

Joseph says they've had these meetings before, but the tempo is more serious this trip. With veteran safeties like Chris Crocker and Roy Williams around, as well as young vets like Joseph and Hall that have been starters from virtually day one of their careers, it can be all business.

"Guys have more attention to detail this year," Joseph says. "A lot of veteran guys that help coming in, take down notes, spread out and getting different opinions about things."

It is the opinion of The Ocho, seriously, that Joseph and Hall are among the best. They literally leave the Loquacious One speechless.

"After working with me, what do you expect?" The Ocho asks. "Leon and J-Joe make the play calls for the coaches easy on defense. When they can go to lock down on whatever side they're on when they're put in those situations. Words can't even describe how they are. They play man-to-man all the time and they're really good at it."

The Ocho thinks the fact Hall and Joseph have to work with the quickness of the Bengals receivers helps them against the thick guys like Brandon Marshall, and Andre and Calvin Johnson.

Joseph bristles a bit about that because he feels like he's always been a willing hitter. But there's no question that Hall changed the culture of the secondary when he barged in from Michigan with the 18th pick in 2007. Until then, the Bengals secondary had been a haven for "cover" corners that would drive Lewis crazy because they would hit as often as an American League pitcher. When the Bengals ended up exchanging Madieu Williams' finesse for Crocker's power at safety last year, the physical perimeter was established.

Asked if anybody has inspired him in the contact game, Joseph shook his head. "I always did it," he says. But he also admits, "I just look on my other side and see Leon and know that's the type of game we like to play."

Hall says he wasn't always a hitter. But when he got to Michigan, secondary coach soon to be coordinator Ron English changed that in a hurry.

"And then when he got here, Coach Zimmer really stressed it," he says of 2008. "He never talked about covering. He always talked about coming up and tackling and being physical."

Just don't ask The Ocho how they tackle.

"When I catch it," he says, "they're nowhere near me. No disrespect."

On this defense, finally, there is none of that.

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