*Leon Hall had big pick-6 vs. Ben Roethlisberger in the 2012 Wild Wild Card Game. *
BENGALS CBS TERENCE NEWMAN, LEON HALL AND ADAM JONES VS.
* STELERS WR ANTONIO BROWN*
The Bengals don't give up big plays and the Steelers make them all the time and something has to give in the Bengals' effort to effectively take Pittsburgh out of the AFC North race for the second time in three years Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) at Paul Brown Stadium.
The quicksilver 5-10, 185-pound Brown, a resident of the 21st century all-Bengals killer team inheriting the spot vacated by Hines Ward, leads the universe in receiving and yards receiving.
(Brown may not have broken Kevin Huber's jaw last year like Ward did to Keith Rivers in 2008, but Brown's 67-yard punt return TD survived the illegal hit.)
Four of Brown's 11 touchdowns from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger have come on plays of 25 yards or more and the Steelers have the second most completions of 25 yards or more in the NFL with 32. The Bengals' three regular cornerbacks have allowed just six completions of at least 25 yards this season (according to ProFootballFocus.com) and no wide receiver has caught a ball of at least 25 yards against the Bengals in the last 17 quarters, dating back to Jacksonville rookie Allen Hurn's 40-yard touchdown catch five minutes into the second half of the Nov. 2 victory over the Jaguars.
In their 35-32 loss to the Saints' last Sunday, the Steelers generated seven plays of at least 21 yards. The Bengals have allowed four plays of at least 21 yards in their last three games.
"That's the easy part in my opinion, keeping the deep balls off you," says Vance Joseph, the Bengals' first-year cornerbacks coach. "It's all situational. If you study and play good technique, the deep balls are low percentage. If you're in good position and understand what we're trying to accomplish, you can play deep balls well. When you don't play deep balls, it's probably recognition, it's probably awareness, it's probably technique and leverage."
Now they are pitted against the NFL's leading receiver the league's sixth best passer and the game's greatest improvisational passer ever.
"Oh man, you have to hold on to your chair, because there ain't no telling what he's going to do," says safety Reggie Nelson of Roethlisberger. "That's when we lean our D-line to get after him and the DBs, Terence, Leon, Pac, Dre (Kirkpatrick) the whole secondary get paid to cover and I think we've doing a good job of that this year."
Good job? They've allowed a league-low 11 touchdown passes, they are second in NFL defensive passer rating at 75.0, third in allowing yards per attempt, fifth in allowing completion percentage, and seventh in third-down efficiency. And if it's anyone who knows what Big Ben is going to do, it's Nelson, the guy that has secured the last two wins against Pittsburgh with late interceptions.
"It starts up front. I think our D line does a good job of pressuring the quarterback and it trickles back up to the corners," says Nelson of shutting down the big play. "I think me and (safety) George (Iloka) are doing a good job of protecting the corners over the top and just not getting too greedy and just doing our job.
"You definitely have to play within the scheme in this defense. You definitely don't want to do much, just let your corners and D line do all the work for you and just do your job, stay back deep and protect."
On Monday after the game, Hall turns 30, giving the Bengals secondary a rare trio of 30-year-old cornerbacks in one of the game's most demanding positions. These guys are as vibrant as the first-round picks they once were, but bring a combined 371 games of NFL experience.
For instance, Hall has been around long enough to sweep Big Ben in '09, one win spurred by fellow corner Johnathan Joseph's pick-6 and the other by Roethlisberger's 51.5 passer rating in the war of 18-12. And in the game both needed to go to the playoffs in 2012, Hall scored the game's only TD on a pick in a 13-10 victory.
And, by the way, how well is the 36-year-old Newman playing? Last week, the NFL's hottest receiver, Tampa rookie Mike Evans, had five shots at him and he caught two balls for 31 yards after leading the NFL in receiving in November. The week before that the Texans'' big gun, wide receiver Andre Johnson, went after Newman six times and got blanked.
"It's rare to have three corners in their 30s who played a lot of football as first-round picks," Joseph says. "It's rare because of the position. It's for young, fast players. If you can get a corner his 30s who's healthy and can still run that makes for a very smart player. With two guys behind them that we can win with (Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard), we're getting better as the weeks go by. I think the communication is better. They know me better and what I expect them to do."
Study. Technique. Discipline. It's how big plays are plugged. It's the only way a defense can prevent Big Ben from clocking them with a scramble play.
"He makes you cover for not only three seconds, but six seconds, eight seconds sometimes," Hall says. "He's big; he's hard to take down. For some strange reason he's pretty elusive. Guys have a hard time getting him down by the one arm or just one person. He's able to extend that and the receivers know that, so even when they end their route, they're still ready and they take a bead…. It's kind of one of those things when you go into the game as a DB, you can't get mad because you're covering six, eight seconds because that's going to happen a few times."
Brown just had his NFL-record of 11 straight games with at least 80 yards broken last month, and he gets a lot of them after the catch, where he's fourth in the league, according to profootballfocus.com. According to PFF, Hall, Newman, and Jones have combined to miss 15 tackles in the pass game. But the key Sunday is going to be tight coverage, which they do well.
"I think Brown is special for what he's doing at his size because he's got big-man ball skills," Joseph says. "All these small guys have quickness, they all have speed, but most of them can't find the ball in traffic. But at 5-10, this guy finds the ball in traffic, and that's rare for a little guy.
"You have to get close to him and make him do those things," Joseph says. "You make Ben find him. You don't want to give him too much space. He's too quick. No one can stay up with that quickness when you're off of him. It looks like basketball. If I want to cover the guy, I have to box him out. I better get close to him. We have to play up top with leverage and make sure we get close to this guy."
It could be any of the corners. For years the Bengals have played it straight. Hall on the right. Newman on the left. Jones on the right when Hall goes in the slot. It doesn't matter where Brown lines up, and the Steelers move him all over. The Bengals will stick with their sides.
"You get to see the offense from the same perspective," Hall said. "Some teams, depending on the week, they run plays to the left and they run some plays to the right. Depending on the week you're looking to that. Honestly either way has advantages, as far as matching up or doing it like we do staying left and right."
Hall and Newman weren't even close to Brown the last time the clubs played, a 30-20 Steelers win in Pittsburgh. They watched it together eating dinner at The Precinct. Hall, out with a torn Achilles, and Newman, out with a sprained knee. But their memories are healthy.
"It wasn't fun to watch, but we watched it," Hall says. "It's not as fresh in my mind as I'm sure it is for the guys who were actually out there. But it was a tough one."