BENGALS CB LEON HALL VS. PACKERS WR RANDALL COBB
Batman, says Ray "Rock" Oliver, is scaling the walls Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) at Paul Brown Stadium.
Oliver was Bengals strength coach Chip Morton's assistant during Hall's first three seasons in the NFL. He was also Cobb's strength coach at the University of Kentucky the season before the Packers broke Cincinnati's heart in the 2011 NFL Draft and took him two slots ahead of the Bengals. Cobb continues to work summers with Oliver, now head of UK's basketball strength program.
"I've heard 100 guys say in the locker room what they're going to do and Randall Cobb is the only guy I've ever heard say it and then go out and do it," Oliver says. "He's got that look in his eye. He's always going to do something as long as the ball is in his hands. I really think he's Batman."
The 5-10, 192-pound Caped Crusader has captivated the NFL. He's not only third in the NFL with 236 yards on two 100-yard games, but according to Pro Football Focus he leads the NFL in target rating, catching 16 of 17 targets while also leading all slot receivers with that 95.1 percentage, and is fourth in yards after catch.
But Oliver says Batman is going to have his gloves full against the 5-11, 195-pound Hall.
"(Mike) Zimmer won't be surprised when he sees Cobb lined up in the backfield," Oliver says of the Bengals defensive coordinator. "If there was one guy I could trust to put on him, it would be Leon. He's sound, he's a technician, he's a professional, he's tough. He'll study the kid and he'll respect the kid."
If Oliver, a Cincinnati native who worked six seasons for Morton in the Bengals weight room, sounds torn, he's not.
"I love Randall Cobb to death," Oliver says. "In my first game at Kentucky I saw him make a one-handed catch and I immediately said to myself, 'Oh my God, we'll win enough games to go to a bowl.' But he can't come into my town and win. I hope he has a great game but goes home with an L."
Oliver says Cobb is going to find the going tougher as the season goes on because more and more teams will put their best cover guy on him. Like Hall. He sees it as a battle between Cobb's quickness and heart vs. Hall's brains and physicality.
"Randall's going to get hit like he's never been hit before by Leon," Oliver says. "Leon's such a sure, tough tackler. He's so smart.
"And if they took an MRI of Cobb's heart, they'd find the heat of an elephant. I remember one game he returned a punt and on that series he was the quarterback in the wildcat, we threw it to him in the slot, and we pitched it to him in the backfield. I went to the coaches and asked, 'Are you trying to kill him?' "
Just as Cobb has the numbers, so does Hall. PFF rated Hall as the NFL's best slot corner last year, allowing just 19 catches for 186 yards and one touchdown. This season he's rated eighth, allowing just five catches for 50 yards on 12 passes. And along with corner mate Terence Newman he's tied this season for first in the NFL with several corners for tackling efficiency.
Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons can breathe a little easier now that the Packers have backed off Cobb returning kicks and punts, which last year helped him lead the NFL with a franchise-record 2,342 combined yards.
"I think his quickness is what surprises people. You can see that on the field. The burst that he has in and out of breaks, you don't see that very often," Hall says. "Only a few people can make those kinds of breaks. I can see some people where he might catch them off guard. "There's only Victor Cruz who can really kind of get in and out of breaks like he can. (Andrew) Hawkins can do the same."
Like everyone else, Hall first saw Cobb return a kick 108 yards in his first NFL game and now he's watched his progress from college quarterback to NFL gamebreaker.
"It's pretty amazing. The first time I saw him was, I'm not sure if it was a kick return or a punt return, but that's kind of when everybody got a glimpse of him," Hall said. "You could see something special, but you thought about it as far as special teams were concerned. It is pretty amazing to see him do what he's done at the receiver position."
Hall says his challenge is multiplied by Cobb's quarterback. He says Aaron Rodgers is the best. Period.
"You see it week in and week out. He's got a strong arm. He runs really well and throws it well on the run," Hall said. "When he's running with the ball he's probably more accurate than he is standing in the pocket. He can throw a 60-yard dart down the field going to his left. The guy is pretty amazing especially with some of the throws he makes. I don't see that anywhere else in the NFL."
Hawkins, who has gone against Hall in the slot plenty in practice, thinks he's elite from what he's seen in his 27 NFL games.
"Leon is a unique blend of techniques, smarts and athletic ability," Hawkins says. "You may have a DB who is a great athlete, but he might not be as smart. You might have a guy that's smart but not that athletic. Some DBs don't have either. Leon's got a high mix of both, which is very rare. Which makes him one of the best DBs in the league. Top-tier in the NFL, no question."
Hall respects Cobb, but he won't let him dictate the action.
"You have to challenge him," Hall said, "Obviously, you want to switch it up in the game, but if you kind of sit back and let him do what he wants to do … if you do that to anybody, it's going to be a long day. So you kind of have to switch it up on him. Sometimes you'll get up, sometimes you'll get back. Try to get him out of his groove."
Oliver remembers a few things about that '11 draft. The Bengals were extremely interested in Cobb and he thought the Old Towne Team would end up with him AND A.J. Green if Cobb got to the third round. He also remembers how mad Cobb was when he didn't go in the first round. (He went 64. The Bengals went 66 and took the departed Dontay Moch.) And when Cobb wanted to work out with Oliver in Lexington that summer, Oliver told him to go to the place that was working out both Green and Julio Jones, the first two receivers selected and told him:
"I want you to stand by them every day working and I want you to know that the only difference between you and them is that they went to two different schools."
"He was mad after the draft, but the one thing about Randall," Oliver says. "If he's mad, he'll do something about it."
It all had Oliver thinking about what might have been and what could be Sunday.
"Batman is coming to town. If he'd been with A.J. it would have been Batman and Superman," Oliver says. "I guess that means Zimmer is going to have to be the Riddler."