The Bengals were mystified last season when no one off their AFC North championship team was voted to the Pro Bowl.
Now after the first quarter of the next season, they may be at least gaining a Hallway into the all-star game. The surest way to get to the Pro Bowl if you're a Bengal is to get at least eight interceptions and with an AFC-leading three in the first four games cornerback Leon Hall is on pace to break cornerback Deltha O'Neal's club record of 10 with a dozen.
The last four Bengals to get at least eight (O'Neal in 2005, cornerback Tory James in 2004, cornerback Ashley Ambrose in 1996, safety David Fulcher in 1989) all made it, but Hall doesn't play to get picks or go to Pro Bowls. The rise in the Bengals secondary has been sparked by the all-around and unselfish play of Hall and his partner on the corner, Johnathan Joseph, a tandem that made alternate Pro Bowl status last year.
The last two Bengals Pro Bowl cornerbacks, O'Neal and James, were tremendous ballhawks that didn't provide much of a physical presence. The Bengals feel they've got two Pro Bowlers now who bring a little bit of everything to the table. In a season the Bengals have generated very little pass rush and even fewer sacks (three), they've allowed opposing passers to compile just a 66.1 rating.
"It is what it is," which is one of Hall's favorite sayings. "When you have the chance to get an interception, you better capitalize. With the elite quarterbacks in the league, they're hard to come by."
Hall's three picks this season are good examples of the myriad of luck, timing, preparation, reaction and athleticism needed to get one:
» No. 1 vs. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco: Also on what looked to be a zone coverage was middle linebacker Dhani Jones. "If I wasn't there, Dhani probably would have caught it. I stole it, but from Dhani if anybody," Hall said.
» No. 2 vs. Panthers quarterback Jimmy Clausen: A huge play early in the game in the red zone. Hall schooled Clausen in his first NFL start when he read his eyes while taking wide receiver Steve Smith running in the middle of the field and then timing his dive in front of him. "I undercut it. The quarterback was looking right there. I just needed to get a good jump on it," Hall said.
» No. 3 vs. Browns quarterback Seneca Wallace: Another huge play. This one at the end of the half and may have led to a win if the Bengals didn't get a field goal blocked on the ensuing drive. The ball bounced off wide receiver Chansi Stuckey's hands and Hall grabbed it. "Right place, right time type of deal," Hall said.
"The reason for his success," says safety Chris Crocker, "is that he works really hard. When we work in drills and technique, he really, really focuses in. He's actually doing it with a purpose. He takes the practice to the game."
Hall's interception on Sunday put him in a tie for sixth on the Bengals all-time interceptions list with Pro Bowl safety Tommy Casanova at 17, but among that group he's second in frequency. James had 21 picks in 64 games for .328 per game while Hall is at .326 with his 17 coming in 52 games.
"Sometimes good corners don't get any picks because quarterbacks don't throw the ball to them," Crocker says. "But he's got tipped balls and just made a lot of plays. Very, very smart guy. Aware."
Hall hasn't been discerning. He's gone after a playoff winner in Flacco, a rookie in Clausen, and a career backup in Wallace. Now in Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman he gets another representative of the quarterback gene pool in a new-age 6-6, 250-pound athletic gunslinger. Think a young Ben Roethlisberger without the rings.
"That's what people are saying," Hall says. "Ben's in a different category because of all his success. (Freeman) is big guy. He's a hard guy to take down. You see a lot of people miss him, or a lot of people hanging on him while he's shedding tacklers. In that sense he's like Roethlisberger. Like Ben, too, he's not looking to scramble. He's looking to get yards to throw the ball."
With four touchdown passes in his first three games, Freeman has a solid 84.6 passer rating. His size and athleticism keeps plays alive and if that's not challenging enough he's got a reliable tight end in Kellen Winslow that leads the NFL in third-down catches.
"No question, you have to stay on your guys longer because he extends plays," Hall says.
Just who'll be covering Winslow isn't clear. He plays some in the slot, which Hall mans, but he also moves around. Tight ends have been busy against the Bengals. The Patriots rookie combo of Aaron Hernandez (a 45-yard catch) and Rob Gronkowski (a TD) nicked them in the opener and last week in Cleveland Ben Watson was the Browns' leading receiver with 60 yards on six catches while Evan Moore got behind Crocker for a 24-yard touchdown catch.
But after giving up only 154, 188 and 184 yards passing the last three weeks, Crocker isn't sure anyone is hurting the Bengals passing. He disputes the notion that tight ends have hurt them.
"He made a play," Crocker said of Moore. "But how many yards did he throw for last week? We haven't made a play in critical situations at times, but overall the passing game hasn't hurt us. We know where (Winslow) is going to be. We'll be ready. He's their best player and we're going to play him accordingly. He's their go-to guy. Everybody on the field is going to know where he is every second."
Freeman is probably also keeping an eye on Hall.
BENGALS ALL-TIME INTERCEPTIONS LEADERS
» CB Ken Riley, 1969-83: 65 in 207 games for .314 per game
» CB Louis Breeden, 1978-87: 33 in 134 games for .246 per game
» S David Fulcher, 1986-92: 31 in 100 games for .310 per game
» CB Lemar Parrish, 1970-77: 25 in 105 games for .238 per game
» CB Tory James, 2003-06: 21 in 64 games for .328 per game
» CB Leon Hall,2007-: 17 in 52 games for .326 per game
» S Tommy Casanova, 1972-77: 17 in 71 games for .239 per game