Entering the 2015 NFL season, there was a very realistic chance that Leon Hall was no longer a starter in the Bengals' defense.
Coming off a down 2014 campaign and a slow start in training camp, combined with the emergence of second-year corner Darqueze Dennard made it appear as though Hall could lose his starting spot in the slot. Dennard, after all, was labeled by Marvin Lewis as "the best rookie corner" he'd ever seen in '14.
A great showing in training camp this year led to more praise for Dennard as an intense battle between he and Hall for the slot spot raged on.Then came Dennard's groin injury that cost him the final three weeks of the preseason, leaving Hall as the winner by default in that battle.
Hall didn't take it that way though as he continued to work as though thew job was still up for grabs, and his hard work is paying off as he not only has locked that spot down, but looks like the Pro Bowl corner he was before his second Achilles tear in 2013. He did show flashes of his better days last year, but it appeared in the long run that father time and two Achilles injuries had finally begun to catch up with the 30-year-old Hall.
Through two games, Hall has a yards per coverage snap of 0.33 when in the slot, the best for all corners with 30+ snaps in the slot, per Pro Football Focus. What's made Hall such a great player in that spot is not only his ability to stay right in the hip of receivers while in coverage down the field, but his read-and-react ability on plays that happen at or behind the line of scrimmage.
The first example was in Week 1 against the Raiders when Matt McGloin hit Seth Roberts on 3rd-and-2 right at the line of scrimmage, but Hall immediately made the tackle to keep him from the 1st-down.
A similar play happened earlier as the Raiders tried to get the ball to Amari Cooper out wide and in position to make just one guy miss to get a big gain. That one guy was Hall, and he once again torpedoed into the receiver to ensure he lost yards on 2nd-and-5.
In Week 2 with the Bengals leading 24-13 late in the fourth quarter, Philip Rivers dumped off the ball to Danny Woodhead on 1st-and-20 and had the potential for decent yardage, but Hall once again read the play and made a great tackle on the elusive Woodhead to limit the gain to six yards.
But Hall's most important play of the season came on a two-point attempt after San Diego scored late in the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to 24-19. A successful conversion here would have made it a field-goal game, and a much easier game for the Chargers to catch up in and gain enough yardage on the ensuing drive to tie the game.
The play is designed to succeed in one of two ways: 1) Hall mistakingly stays with Johnson as he runs to block Adam Jones, leaving those two covering him as Allen catches the ball and easily runs into the end zone. 2) Hall reads the play well and attempts to stop Allen, but left tackle King Dunlap gets a block on him and springs Allen for the score.
However, neither of these happens as Hall diagnosed the play as soon as Johnson began cutting out and immediately burst forward into Allen as soon as he caught the pass to prevent the two-point conversion.
The play left the Bengals leading 24-19 before the Chargers later get the ball back with 1:09 left at their own 20-yard line. Had they converted the two-pointer, they'd only need to drive about 45 yards to put kicker Josh Lambo in range to tie the game and send it to OT.
Instead, Hall's play forced the Chargers to drive 80 yards, almost double what they needed had the attempt been successful. That led to Rivers knowing he needed to pick up big yards in each play and he tried to force a pass over the middle that Vinny Rey intercepted to seal the win.
If Hall keeps playing like this, the Bengals secondary may end up being one of the four or five best in football this year.