Two of the more prominent members of the Bengals stretch run last season on defense surfaced in team drills during Monday's voluntary field practice (OTA) on the Paul Brown Stadium practice fields.
Cornerback Leon Hall, coming off a torn thumb ligament in the weight room from early in the offseason, and safety Reggie Nelson, rebounding from what he calls some "aches," didn't waste any time handing out some pain of their own after doing only individual work.
Nelson, who picked off Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the last minute of the AFC North Wild Card playoff game to set up the winning points, took advantage of rookie tight end Tyler Eifert's shortened route and picked off quarterback Andy Dalton over the middle. A few plays before that, Hall shadowed two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green well enough to climb the ladder and break up a ball Dalton hung up as Green raced to the sideline from the middle of the field.
"You notice it when guys like (Hall) and Reggie are out there," Dalton said. "There's a lot of communication going on out there. Some of these guys have been in the system for a long time. You can just tell with the communication. It's quick. Everybody knows what they're doing."
It looked like Nelson sat all over Eifert's route because he knew it was coming. But Nelson simply read the rookie and not the playbook.
"You have to execute the defense more than anything and practice your technique; yeah, play it straight," Nelson said. "You have to know your opponents and your own defensive playbook. (Remembering specific practice plays); that's not happening."
When Eifert stopped his crossing route and set up for Dalton to throw it over the middle, Nelson jumped into action.
"I was outside and Andy had already thrown the ball. I just broke on the ball," Nelson said. "He stopped the route. He didn't know Andy threw the ball, so I broke on the ball when Andy threw the ball."
It was a rare mental mistake by Eifert that Gruden calls "mentals."
"That's the thing with Tyler right now," Dalton said. "He's got a great understanding of route-running and different things like that. It's just making sure we're on the same page and making sure he knows what I'm seeing and things like that. I don't think he's going to make that mistake again; not coming out of the route."
This is how Gruden saw it:
"It was a classic I-thought-he-was-going-there-and-he went-there. It's one of Tyler's only flub-ups. He had a pressure-off out route and Reggie was sitting outside. But Andy thought (Eifert) was still going to break it across Reggie's face. Tyler stopped. I'll have to take a look at the film on that one to see who's right. But we should never throw it to them.
"But I could see what Andy was seeing and I could see what Tyler was thinking. We've just got to get it shored up tomorrow and we will. Tyler was thinking he was just going to hook it up right there, but Andy thought Reggie was gaining enough ground where he could still break it across his face and run the out route, so he threw it to where Tyler was going to go, but obviously he stopped."
Eifert said simply that he should have kept going and that it's already been corrected and he's moved on. Nelson, for his part, let out a happy yell when he saw the ball headed his way and had enough time to point at the stationary Eifert.
"It's good to be back out there again with the fellas," Nelson admitted. "You miss that."
Hall, whose two interception returns were the only Bengals touchdowns in their two elimination games last season, also looked pleased to be off the sidelines.
"I'm a little rusty. But all in all it was a good day just to get my feet wet and get back out there and try to gel with the defense like I like to do and just try to have fun," Hall said. "I had a lot of fun. I was talking to Adam (Jones) early. It sucks being on the sideline, just watching. It's cool being out there and watching and helping guys out, but it's a whole other level when you're actually able to get out there."
One of the reasons it is nice to have both guys out there is that they can help The Safety That is Going To Start Opposite Nelson.
Whoever that is.
It's been a soap opera the last few years and at the moment the guy lining up next to Nelson is Taylor Mays. Third-rounder Shawn Williams has flashed, but he was backed off Monday with apparently some muscle tightness.
Hall didn't need to get into 11-on-11 to throw around his leadership skill, honed from his past few seasons many call top five NFL good. Last week after practice Hall saw Williams getting interviewed and asked the reporter, "Please tell him to make sure he gets to his vision spot."
Williams smiled. That would be the spot he must be deployed in, say, Cover 2.
"They all bring something different to the table. The biggest part for all of them is just making sure they know the playbook front and back," Hall said of the candidates. "That frees you up to just play. The game moves a lot slower when you can do that. You can start focusing on your technique, start focusing on your opponent, as opposed to completely thinking about what the defense entails as far as if they give me one look, I'm supposed to do this; if they give me another look, I'm supposed to do that. It's one of those things you want to learn to where you hear it in the call and you just think about it real quick and it's gone and you can start focusing on the offense."
It's also the first time Hall got to be on the other side of Eifert and shake-and-bake rookie running back Giovani Bernard and he was impressed enough to chat up running backs coach Hue Jackson.
"I was talking to Hue about how quick (Bernard) is, and shifty. He's real elusive. You can tell when a guy puts on the pads he's going to look the same," Hall said. "He just seems like one of those guys who can just transition real easily, as far as from OTAs into training camp into the season."
Hall doesn't like to compare guys, but he knows how a running and receiving threat can tax a defense. He still remembers when the Bengals prepped for Minnesota's Chester Taylor in 2009.
"When you've got a guy like that, it's somebody you really have to talk about and someone you have to be wary of on third down. Be smart about where he lines up. And it's something you focus on. You have to spend time on it during the week," Hall said. "Obviously there are only so many hours in the day during the season to squeeze that stuff in. It just makes it harder as that little extra feature for the offense.
"As a defense, obviously you don't want to put a DB on him because they can run the ball and the DB is sitting there in the box. That definitely puts a lot of pressure on the linebackers and maybe a safety dropping down in the box."
Hall, avid golfer, didn't really need to cover Eifert in the slot to be impressed. Which is good because the one time he got him Monday it was away from the play and it was a mulligan par.
"First of all, I saw him hit a golf ball the other day, and it was amazing," Hall said. "From what I've seen, he looks like a worker. He's enthusiastic I can tell, even when's on the sideline. I was over there with the offense last week, and he's pretty enthusiastic. You can tell he just loves to be out here."
So do Hall and Nelson, with all of their combined 14 NFL seasons frolicking like the kids.
"When guys like that are out there, everybody gets better," Dalton said of the OTAs. "The other DBs. Receivers. Everybody."