Safety Reggie Nelson is enjoying what he calls his "second chance," with the Bengals.
PATRIOTS QB TOM BRADY VS. BENGALS CB LEON HALL AND S REGGIE NELSON
Remember the 2007 NFL Draft when the Bengals took Hall out of Michigan with the 18th pick?
The Bengals never thought he'd be there. They were preparing for life with Pittsburgh cornerback Darrelle Revis or Nelson, the Florida safety.
And now eight seasons later, with the Patriots' Revis coming into Sunday night's game against the Bengals (8:30-Cincinnati's Channel 5) bannered as The NFL's Best Cornerback, Hall is quietly the most versatile corner on the league's most stifling pass defense and Nelson is his partner on a defense that gives nothing on third down.
If the Bengals' signature pressure is to harass New England's beleaguered offensive line and the embattled Brady, Hall and Nelson have to outduel him as much mentally as physically.
Hall is the NFL's best corner no one knows and has been for several years even though he's come back from two torn Achilles before he turns 30 this December. Revis is all over Twitter and has an island named after him. Hall disdains social media and simply harbors high regard in his locker room and league circles.
"No question. Leon is the best nickel corner in the league," says Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. "What he does for us in the slot impacts us so much. It's such a unique job it's like its own position."
This is not going to be last year's game against the Patriots, a 13-6 Bengals victory. It may be a Bengals victory, but it won't be 13-6.
For one thing, it's at Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots are so ridiculously good they have a 31-game winning streak against the AFC and a 42-game streak of at least one touchdown pass.
And for another, the Pats have a slew of players Sunday night that they didn't have at Paul Brown Stadium last Oct. 6. Start with Pro Bowlers Vince Wilfork at defensive tackle and Rob Gronkowski at tight end and it ranges to running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. Plus, add the two Pro Bowl corners they acquired in the spring, Revis and Brandon Browner, and you've got a different team.
But it will be recalled that the Bengals also didn't have Hall that day, sidelined with a hamstring injury two weeks before he tore his Achilles in Detroit. Now with him back in the lineup, Guenther is free to challenge Brady like maybe predecessor Mike Zimmer couldn't even though the Bengals still broke Brady's 52-game streak with at least one touchdown pass.
With Hall unable to play the Patriots' dangerous slot receivers, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, Zimmer turned to old friend Chris Crocker. Like Hall, Crocker knew the Bengals defense backward and forward but had only re-joined the team the team two weeks before.
"I just tried to smother those two guys, Edelman and Amendola. Take away Tom Brady's first read because he likes to go to those two guys a lot," Crocker said after that game. "What makes Zim so good? I feel like we make really good adjustments during the game."
What makes Guenther so good? The ability to not only disguise blitzes, but to make sure they work so that the Bengals have one more rusher than the foe has blocker. Last year, the Bengals didn't think Brady was confused. They thought he was frustrated with his young receivers.
"We don't really disguise much. What we do is we try to line up the same all the time, so that's really our kind of disguise," Zimmer said after that game.
Whether Brady was confused or not, Guenther was Zimmer's third-down specialist and he oversaw a brilliant effort that shut down Brady on one of 12 third-down tries. Amendola, who has just three catches this season, had four for 55 yards last year against the Bengals while Edelman had just two catches for 35 yards. They are up to their old tricks, fourth in the NFL on third down after finishing second last year.
Now Guenther has Hall, the master of disguise in the slot. Hall's challenge is formidable on Sunday night since Brady is the master at deciphering disguises.
"You have to be able to do everything in the slot," Guenther says. "It's a different game in there. You not only have to cover, you have to be involved in the run game and you have to blitz. The big thing is you have to be smart and Leon is all of that."
Hall is a proud man and it no doubt fuels him Brady is not only one of the greatest who has ever lived, but he's a fellow Michigan man. He picked off Brady in 2007 and once joked in Sports Illustrated that Brady must have felt sorry for him because he was a rookie and he was from Michigan.
And then there is Revis, the 14th pick that year to the Jets. He has snagged the mega contracts and the Pro Bowls, but Hall has been the Co-MVP of one division title run and been the key part of the back end of a top ten defense four of the last five years, Even though he has missed 18 games the last three years, primarily because of two Achilles' tears, it has raised him in the eyes of his teammates.
"Leon's a great player," Nelson says. "How many players come back from two torn Achilles' and play at a high level? That speaks for itself. His drive for the game. Who wouldn't want to play on his team? That's the kind of guy you want on your team for your young guys. They're attracted to him and he's a leader. Overlooked. But we don't care about that. He doesn't care about that."
Hall may not be seen as Revis, but as head coach Marvin Lewis says that was a heck of a pick.
"Leon just does a good job doing his thing and playing his role and he's helped us win a lot of games," Lewis says. "We're not big in promotions here, so we just play football. That's the only thing I know. Whenever guys go to New York, they all of a sudden have their own life other than football. All I know is football."
And Revis has been brilliant. Bengals fans remember how he chased Chad Johnson all over the field as a member of the Jets and how he shut him down in the 2009 Wild Card Game to chase the Bengals out of the playoffs.
Down through the years Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has had a heavy dose of preparing for Revis and going against Hall every day in practice. Plus, he spent a year working with the Bengals DBs and he has an idea why Revis is so well known and Hall isn't.
"Obviously people classify Revis as the best corner in football. I like our guy, too," Jackson says. "I'd put his name up there, too. I don't shy away when it comes to Leon. Revis' background is playing a lot of man coverage and chasing everyone's best receiver. We've been fortunate enough to have a lot of good defensive backs and our guys don't have to chase guys that way. But I think our guys could chase guys that way if they were asked to do so."
The Bengals shut down Brady last year doing what they always do. Playing their corners straight up and asking them to cover whoever comes to their side. Its how they've crafted this year's top defensive passer rating in the NFL at a measly 56.9. One of the big second guesses in New England these days is after signing Revis in the offseason, why are the Pats using him in so much zone and not putting him on the best receiver all the time?
Certainly everyone expects him to match up with Bengals' three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green on Sunday.
"Brady is Brady," Nelson says. "We just have to execute the defense and make sure we don't try and do too much. Don't try to do anything we haven't done before."
Pretty good draft. Now three guys taken within seven picks of each other in the 2007 draft are prepping to play major roles on the Sunday night stage. Nelson, taken 21st by the Jaguars, took a pre-draft visit to Cincinnati. But like Revis, he ended up with his current club via a move, albeit a much quieter one, just before the 2010 season. Anybody know what David Jones is doing now, the corner the Bengals traded for Nelson?
Nelson has logged about 3,000 snaps the past three years, the constant in the middle of a top seven defense. His last-minute interceptions have beaten the Steelers and Chargers on the road to the playoffs and this year Guenther has got him blitzing from all over with 1.5 sacks already after having four in the previous 61 games.
"Reggie has had total maturation as a person, player. He's everything we hoped," Lewis says.
Nelson never gave much thought where he'd get drafted.
"I was a Juco guy. I took the long way. I was just ready to go play," Nelson says. "I had a good time in Jacksonville. It's been great here. I have no regrets. Mr. (Mike) Brown gave me a second chance."
Now Sunday night is a second look at that 2007 draft.