Now that Johnathan Joseph has left Cincinnati for greener pastures and awesome barbeque brisket in Texas, the Bengals are left with Leon Hall as the team's best cover cornerback with Nate Clements and Morgan Trent rounding out the first team secondary at corner. How Hall performs could be a major factor for the Bengals defense this year. It'll be one thing if he shuts down opposing wide receivers. It's another if he's targeted by the opposing offense, which he was against the Detroit Lions.
On the second offensive play of the game, Leon Hall lined up against Calvin Johnson. The Lions lined up in three-wide formation with the slot receiver on the left; Cincinnati went with a base 4-3 formation with Manny Lawson initially showing man coverage on the slot before blitzing at the snap. Matthew Stafford takes the shotgun snap and Johnson makes contact with Hall, pushing him away just as the football was released. With Hall's separation, Johnson easily cut inside to complete his route and haul in the reception for an 11-yard gain and the first down.
With 11:40 left in the first quarter, during Detroit's seventh play on their first offensive possession of the game, the Lions lined up in three-wide formation with Thomas Howard covering the slot receiver on the right (from the Bengals point of view). With Hall playing tight coverage on Calvin Johnson at the Bengals 26-yard line, Stafford takes the shotgun snap. Johnson comes off the line, doesn't shimmy, doesn't provoke a physical confrontation, just runs a vertical route down the right sidelines. Stafford immediately looked down field, targeting an underthrown pass to Johnson's back shoulder. Tied to Johnson's hip running step-for-step with the receiver, Hall was at full speed by the time Johnson slowed in anticipation for the underthrown ball, forcing natural separation between the two. Johnson hauled in the touchdown pass and the Lions take a 7-0 lead.
When the Lions recovered John Griffin's fumble on the ensuing kickoff return, the Cincinnati Bengals defense was forced to back onto the field at their own 16-yard line. The Lions called three plays to Best (one run, two passes) that picked up nine yards setting up a fourth-and-one with 9:58 left in the first quarter at the Bengals seven-yard line.
Detroit called an obvious passing formation, with a single back in the backfield and two receivers flanking both sides of the offensive line. The Bengals called nickel, with Thomas Howard blitzing from the left and Crocker and Hall playing man coverage on the left; Reggie Nelson double covered the slot receiver on their right and Rey Maualuga matched the running back in the backfield.
After a three-step drop, Stafford looked to his right and threw a floater towards the middle of the right sideline in the endzone, targeting Nate Burleson. Leon Hall matched nearly every step made by Burleson, except looking back at the football. After boxing out Hall -- mostly because Hall was protecting against inside routes -- Burleson turned and beautifully hauled in Stafford's reception. Much like the Johnson touchdown reception, Hall just didn't have a chance. The pass was placed where only Burleson could make a play on it. Yet Hall didn't give up. Just as the football arrived, Hall made one last ditch effort to knock the pass away with an outstretched dive that came up short. The Lions take a 14-0 lead within the first five minutes of the game.
We don't want to go into a mindless rant about how Hall stunk on Friday. If you watched the game, he covered both receivers as well as he could and I find it difficult to believe that many first-team corners around the league could defend Johnson and Burleson respectively on those plays and exact situations. That being said, when the dust settled, it's still a 14-point lead now matter how you slice it.