Bengals cornerbacks living up to potential
CINCINNATI — When Joe Flacco threw deep down the left side, Leon Hall was there to intercept. When the Ravens quarterback tried to go deep again, Johnathan Joseph picked it off.
The Cincinnati Bengals' former first-round draft picks have grown into one of the better cornerback tandems in the NFL, one reason why the defense is on the rise. Each of them has four interceptions, leaving them tied for fifth place in the league.
Much of the focus will be on them Sunday when they cover the Steelers' Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes during a showdown for first place in the AFC North.
"They're definitely becoming a great tandem, especially in the AFC North, as far as the two corners that Santonio and I face," Ward said Wednesday. "Both of those guys were first-rounders, and they're starting to play up to their potential."
They're playing the way the Bengals envisioned when they made Joseph their first pick (24th overall) in 2006 and followed that by making Hall their top pick (18th overall) a year later. Cincinnati hoped they would grow into bookend pass defenders.
Before they did that, they had to grow into close friends.
Given their draft stature and the high expectations, the two of them have developed a bond in their short time together. They were side by side as they walked off the practice field yesterday, and that's not unusual.
"I do notice," defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said, as the cornerbacks walked past him. "I see a lot of Leon rubbing off on Johnathan and vice versa in other ways. They sit next to each other in meetings. Johnathan has become more physical, like Leon has. I think they're a good pair of guys."
Their lockers are next to each other in the football-shaped dressing room, providing plenty of opportunities to make small chat and keep up on things. Their closeness has helped both of them grow.
"I think probably the biggest thing — which really goes side by side with how we go off the field — is that we're just real good friends," Hall said. "So, we communicate better on the field. We try to compete against each other out there, and that helps a lot.
"We get along well easily, so it's not something we had to force. It just naturally happened."
Both had to go through some tough times to get to this point.
Joseph moved into the starting lineup as a rookie, but he had a tendency to drop potential interceptions. A foot injury limited him in his second year, and ankle and foot injuries cut his 2008 season in half. Hall has played in every game during his two seasons, going through the usual growing pains for an NFL cornerback.
Quarterback Carson Palmer has watched them develop during practices.
"I don't know of a better tandem," Palmer said. "The two guys in Green Bay (Charles Woodson and Al Harris) are really good, but I don't think I would take either of those guys over our guys.
"Our guys are young, fast and physical, and they both have been working on their hands to make big plays. Johnathan Joseph was always getting his hands on the ball, but he worked hard in the offseason and he is converting tipped balls and interceptions."
The cornerbacks also have been very helpful in the running game. Cincinnati's defense ranks second in the league at stopping the run, right behind the Steelers. Joseph is third on the team in tackles, and Hall is tied for fifth.
Coach Marvin Lewis likes the way they've been able to take advantage of their one-on-one matchups consistently.
"They are playing both fundamentally sound and smart, and I put a big capital on 'smart,"' Lewis said. "That's key to playing cornerback in this league. Both guys have tremendous athleticism, speed and ability to play the ball in the air. What gets you in trouble at that position is when you try to do too much."
Notes: Guard Evan Mathis (ankle) and linebacker Keith Rivers (calf) didn't practice yesterday. Lewis said their injuries are not as severe as originally feared, but "I don't know if we'll have their services or not" in Pittsburgh. ... Fullback Jeremi Johnson also skipped practice with a chest injury.