Leon Hall: The Numbers, The Tape, The Verdict

He’s often overlooked, but Leon Hall’s career has reached incredible heights.

Joe Goodberry(@) of SBNation’s CincyJungle and DraftBengals wrote
the introduction to this piece.

Since being drafted 18th overall in 2007, Cincinnati Bengals fans have enjoyed Leon Hall showing up every week, doing his job and doing so at a high level. Consistency, intelligent play and durability has made Hall into one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks and probably the most underrated.

Even in Cincinnati and among Bengals faithful, Hall has been overlooked and questioned. When he and Johnathan Joseph were one of the best cornerback tandems in the NFL, Bengals fans weren’t sure who was better. Joseph had the athletic gifts, but Hall never missed a game and played at the same level each week. The debate had relevance because the team would eventually have that same discussion.

After the 2010 season, the Bengals front office had to decide who to build their defense around between the two corners. They ultimately let Joseph walk.

Hall was signed to an extension before the 2011 season and until this point, never missed a game for the Bengals. On November 13th, 2011 in Pittsburgh, he tore his Achilles and was placed on injured reserve the next day. Joseph went on to have his first Pro Bowl season and doubt crept into the minds of everyone. Did Cincinnati make the right choice in signing the corner that always stayed healthy and played sound football over the corner that offered every physical trait you look for, but often battled injuries and had more ups and downs?

In 2012, Hall was declared healthy in training camp and never looked back.

It was rare that his injury held him back, and as the season progressed, Bengals fans saw the same overlooked Leon Hall that they’ve relied on for six seasons. Hall was now covering the slot, outside, defending the run and came up with clutch plays in their two biggest games of 2012.

Hel may not be the Bengals best defensive player, because Geno Atkins is a man amongst boys, but Hall is their leader and the face of the defense. Getting to know him means getting to know Mike Zimmer and the Bengals’ defense.

Explaining the Process

Qualifying Plays:
Plays that count:

  • Every snap that has the cornerback in man coverage no matter where the ball is thrown.
  • The above includes sacks, quarterback scrambles and plays where the defensive back has safety help.

Plays that don’t count:

  • Screen plays. Even if the receiver isn’t part of the screen, these plays do not count.
  • Plays where either the receiver or cornerback doesn’t follow through his whole assignment.
  • Zone plays. Any ambiguity in this area will disqualify a play.
  • Any prevent coverage situations.
  • Receptions in the flat without a route run.
  • Running plays(duh!). Including designed quarterback runs.

Failed Coverages:

The ball does not have to be thrown in the defensive back’s direction for the coverage to fail. This is NOT an alysis of how many completions the cornerback allowed, that can be found elsewhere, this is an analysis of how good his coverage is on any given play.

Failed coverages can come at any point of the route, but it is subjective to where the players are on the field in relation to the quarterback. Typically, defensive backs must be within arms reach for underneath/intermediate routes. On deeper passes, there is greater leeway given to the defender.

Failed coverages can be subjective. They must be determined by the situation considering the length of the play and other such variables.

Shut Down:

This category is reserved for those plays when receivers would have to make superhuman catches to beat the coverage. The best example of this is when receivers line up wide and try to run down the sideline, but the defensive back gradually guides them towards the sideline, suffocating the space they have to catch the football in. If a receiver is on the white sideline, he is shut down.

In Position:

This is the opposite of a failed coverage. In order to be ‘In Position’, a defensive back has to be in a position to prevent a relatively well-thrown pass to his assignment.

 

Denarius Moore leads the way, but he’s got nothing to smile about.

Wide Receiver Success-Individual Matchups

No.

Player

Successful Snaps/Coverage Snaps

Percentage

1 Denarius Moore 2/7 28.6%
2 Jason Avant 2/8 25%
3 Malcom Floyd 1/4 25%
4 Antonio Brown 1/4 25%
5 Mohammed Massaquoi 1/4 25%
6 Anquan Boldin 1/4 25%
7 Miles Austin 4/17 23.5%
8 Deonte Thompson 3/13 23%
9 Davone Bess 2/11 18.2%
10 Mike Wallace 2/12 16.6%
11 Danario Alexander 1/6 16.6%
12 Owen Daniels 1/6 16.6%
13 Victor Cruz 4/26 15.4%
14 Demaryius Thomas 1/7 14.3%
15 Erick Decker 1/7 14.3%
16 Torrey Smith 2/16 12.5%
17 Greg Little 1/9 11%
18 Dexter McCluster 1/10 10%
19 Dez Bryant 0/4 0%
20 Kevin Walter 0/4 0%
21 Seyi Ajirotutu 0/5 0%
22 Andre Johnson 0/6 0%
23 Jacoby Jones 0/8 0%
24 Josh Gordon 0/8 0%
25 Emmanuel Sanders 0/9 0%
  Totals 31 / 189  
  Averages 1.24 / 7.56 13.82%

*Those with less than four snaps against Hall were not included.

It’s easy to see how valuable Leon Hall is to MIke Zimmer’s defense.

Weekly Breakdown

Week 1: Baltimore Ravens
Total qualifying plays: 27
Failed coverages: 5
Shutdowns: 3
In Position: 19

Not that anyone expected any different, but the Baltimore Ravens took no pity on Leon Hall as he made his return from that torn Achilles injury. On his very first snap in coverage, the Ravens attacked him with a deep ball.

After play action, the Bengals’ secondary was scrambling to recover. It appeared that the Bengals were playing a three deep zone coverage, but the Ravens attacked the deep third of the defense with three receivers, creating what was effectively a man coverage situation.

Hall had the outside third responsibility tot he right side and was lined up against Torrey Smith who was running straight down the seam. Smith swerved slightly to the outside to create space inside as Hall was dropping off. That movement turned it into a foot-race between the two, something that is always going to favour Smith.

Hall might have handled the situation better later int he season, because he looked somewhat uncomfortable early on in the season before adjusting and losing any rust later, but either way he was always going to struggle with Smith in that much space and did well to just prevent a touchdown with a recovering tackle.

Screen shot 2013-06-04 at 13.41.40

Outside of that initial play, Hall also wrongly was called for a pass interference play that negated some outstanding play against a Boldin slant, before Dennis Pitta was able to make an excellent reception in the endzone against him because of his size.

Screen shot 2013-06-05 at 21.46.57

It was a rough return for the veteran cornerback on occasion, but he was still very effective for the most part.

Week 2: Cleveland Browns
Total qualifying plays: 15
Failed coverages: 2
Shutdowns: 0
In Position: 13

Hall exclusively played on the right side when he wasn’t in the slot covering Mohammed Massaquoi. Massaquoi beat him once with a quick step at the line of scrimmage, while Greg Little used his size to coral the ball in front of Hall on a slant pattern. Josh Gordon got free on one occasion also, but he pushed off to do so.

Week 3: Injured

Week 4: Injured

Week 5: Miami Dolphins
Total qualifying plays: 12
Failed coverages: 2
Shutdowns: 2
In Position: 8

Although he split his time between the right cornerback spot and the slot, Hall only covered Brian Hartline once and spent the rest of the game on Davone Bess. Bess only escaped Hall when he slipped once and on a shallow out route.

Bess struggled with Hall for the same reason that many slot receivers struggle with him.

 Screen shot 2013-06-05 at 22.44.59

To start the second quarter, the Dolphins come with four wide receivers, Ryan Tannehill in the shotgun and a running-back to his right side. Leon Hall, circled, is lined up in the slot over one of the stacked receiver bunches. Hall is playing man coverage, but his assignment is Davone Bess, the receiver behind the player he has directly lined up over.

Screen shot 2013-06-05 at 22.44.592

The Dolphins lined Bess up behind the other receiver to try and give him a free release of the line of scrimmage. This defensive formation suggests that Hall is covering the receiver closest to the line of scrimmage and the player behind him will pick up Bess once he clears out.

With his quickness, this small bit of breathing space to start the play should be enough for Bess to set up the cornerback and use his quickness to get outside.

Screen shot 2013-06-05 at 22.50.25

As Bess looks to enter his break, Hall moves into a position that occupies his space and establishes himself to try and reroute the receiver. This causes a tie up for a moment as Bess hesitates and tries to manoeuvre his way  into a position where Tannehill has a clear throwing lane to pass to him.

Even though he was initially held up, being tight to a defensive back with two directions to go in is typically an advantage for a quick receiver like Bess. He should be able to shift his weight, using his low center of gravity, before accelerating away from the defensive back. However, even though Hall has a lankier frame than your typical nickelback, he still has all of the quickness and speed to run with the better possession receivers in the league.

Furthermore, his lanky frame actually works in his favour against shorter possession receivers.

Screen shot 2013-06-05 at 23.05.38

Here Bess has created enough of a window for Tannehill to give him a chance with a good pass. Tannehill gives him that chance, but because of Hall’s length, he is able to punch the ball out of Bess’ hands despite being in a worse position to play the football.

This is what makes Hall special in the slot. He has all the athletic attributes of a small cornerback, but he plays the football like a taller one. Bigger receivers can’t overwhelm him physical, while smaller receivers can’t run away from him. He beats bigger receivers to the football because of his quickness and ball-skills, while he suffocates space away from smaller receivers.

Week 6: Cleveland Browns
Total qualifying plays: 14
Failed coverages: 1
Shutdowns: 2
In Position: 11

From a sheer positional point of view, Hall was perfect in this game. However, on one occasion, Josh Cooper ran an out route and even though Hall played the situation perfectly, he completely missed the ball when he looked to knock it out of the air. Because it wasn’t a recurring issue throughout the season, it was something that was easily chalked up to being rusty after what was now two recent spells on the sideline.

Again, the most notably play in this game came when Hall showed off his excellent ball-skills in a different scenario. However, this wasn’t a routine play. What Hall does on this play is very subtle, but it is also very special.

Screen shot 2013-06-05 at 23.15.29

It’s third and 10 and the Browns have the perfect play called to get them a first down. The Bengals are playing cover two with man coverage across the board underneath. Hall is in the slot to the right side of the offense, the top of the image, with Josh Cooper as his assignment.

Cooper is Hall’s assignment, but the first part of this play requires him to beat his teammate, Greg Little, who is lined up one spot outside of Cooper to the same side of the field.

Screen shot 2013-06-05 at 23.15.46

Little is running a slant route inside before he comes to a stop and curls back to the quarterback. Cooper is arcing his route towards the sideline before running downfield. The combination of these two routes is supposed to create a natural(read: legal) pick play that will take Hall completely out of the game. Little isn’t really a receiver on this play, his first assignment is to get in the way of Hall to spring Cooper free into the space(green circle) between the cornerbacks and the deep safety.

Screen shot 2013-06-05 at 23.17.10

This looks like a simple play when you slow it down, but Hall’s focus is on the wide receiver completely and he is acting at speed. He only sees Little at the very last moment and has to react instantly or he will either be knocked to the ground(legally) or afford Cooper too much space as he tries to work around him.

A natural reaction when something comes out of nowhere the way Little did is to plant your foot and sharply change direction. Hall doesn’t do that, instead he glides past the receiver’s frame very fluidly without losing conceding ground to Cooper.

Screen shot 2013-06-05 at 23.17.18

Although Hall has made it look easy avoiding the pick play like an expert, he is still not in a good position to prevent the reception. There is space between he and the receiver, while Hall hasn’t turned his head even though the ball is already in flight. Hall has no clue where the ball is, but he knows that the wide receiver does because he is looking back to his quarterback.

Hall is smart enough to read the receiver’s eyes, but preventing the reception will require him to act very fast and not waste any movements with his hands. Too often defensive backs panic in this situation and flail their arms around recklessly. Hall does not.

Screen shot 2013-06-05 at 23.17.34

In order to avoid any pass interference penalty, Hall can’t get too close to the receiver until the ball arrives. This means that even though he has gradually closed the space between them as they moved down the sideline, he still can only get into a tight coverage position as the ball arrives.

As soon as Cooper extends his hands, Hall pounces and looks to make his move. He watches the ball into the receivers’ hands before using his quickness and strength to punch it free from his grasp.

If there is any single play that epitomises Leon Hall as a player, it is this one. He is quietly brilliant and relies on very subtle aspects of his game to achieve a level of coverage that just frustrates receivers on every single snap.

Week 7: Pittsburgh Steelers
Total qualifying plays: 16
Failed coverages: 3
Shutdowns: 1
In Position: 12

As a true nickelback, Hall spends much of his time defending intermediate and shorter routes, but he does play outside and cover the deep ball on a regular basis also. A strong pass-rush on defense means that few teams ever really look to stretch the field repeatedly, but with Mike Wallace on the field, the Steelers always wanted to test secondaries down the field last year.

Screen shot 2013-06-05 at 23.41.45

In this league we typically reserve the term ‘special athlete’ for pass-rushers, wide receivers or linebackers. Sometimes we use it with outside cornerbacks, but rarely is a true special athlete put at nickel back. That is the direction the NFL is moving in however, thanks to the emergence of hybrid tight ends. Instead of short shifty nickebacks, we’ve got rangy athletes such as Cortez Allen, Casey Hayward and Leon Hall playing inside nowadays.

In the above play, Mike Wallace initially gets a step on Hall as he runs a seam route from a slot receiver position. Hall has no help and Wallace is the fastest player in the NFL. This is a recipe for disaster.

Wallace breaks out towards the sideline before he reaches the endzone, while at the same time Ben Roethlisberger is rolling out of the pocket to extend the play. Roethlisberger can see that Wallace gets separation from Hall coming out of his break and even though he slightly underthrows his pass, it should have enough height on it to reach him in the corner of the endzone.

Yet, even though Hall is in a full-sprint to recover position on Wallace, he is still able to undercut the route and leap into the air, fully extending to tip the ball away. Hall didn’t have the speed to stick with Wallace side-by-side, but he did have enough athleticism to prevent the touchdown unless Roethlisberger had thrown a perfect pass. Something that is very unlikely when the play has gone on that long and he has reset outside of the pocket.

It wasn’t all perfect for Hall during the first half of the season however. He was very consistent for the most part, but there were times when his coverage looked lax as if he wasn’t fully focused. By the second half of the season, these kinds of plays had disappeared which makes me think they were just part of his adjustment back after a major injury.

Screen shot 2013-06-05 at 23.55.01

On the above play, Emmanuel Sanders ran a simple intermediate post route. Hall was in perfect position to play the route underneath as part of a cover-two defense, but halfway through the receiver’s break he inexplicably stopped before sluggishly coming chasing after Sanders across the field.

Screen shot 2013-06-05 at 23.55.52

That minor blip resulted in one of the biggest plays of the game.

Week 9: Denver Broncos
Total qualifying plays: 17
Failed coverages: 2
Shutdowns: 2
In Position: 13

Hall played all but one snap at right cornerback as he comfortably handled Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker for most of the game. Decker didn’t get free from him on a single snap, while Thomas only beat him once on a shallow in route when Hall was too relaxed coming out of his break. Brandon Stokley bounced off of him on a curl route for his other failed coverage.

Week 10: New York Giants
Total qualifying plays: 28
Failed coverages: 4
Shutdowns: 3
In Position: 21

This wasn’t Hall’s best game of the season, but it was very close and was it appeared to kick-start him into his best football for the rest of the year. Hall trailed Victor Cruz all day and held him to next to nothing. Cruz isn’t a spectacular technician as a receiver, he runs good, crisp routes, but he makes plays primarily because of his incredible explosion.

Cruz dropped a touchdown pass against Hall when he appeared to be expecting safety help that never came, but outside of that and three harmless out routes, he had a very frustrating day against the Bengals’ defensive back.

Screen shot 2013-06-06 at 00.10.32

On this play, Cruz is lined up against Hall to the top of the screen. The safety to their side of the field for the Bengals is moving towards the opposite sideline, while the closest linebacker is on top of the tight end to that side. This means that Cruz and Hall are in so much space that they are essentially on an island.

Screen shot 2013-06-06 at 00.11.00

Cruz wants to run a slant and he does everything he needs to do to set up the route. He initially attacks Hall’s outside shoulder and he really does sell the sideline route because his whole body is facing that direction and his feet are in line together pointing that way. Hall reacts, but as the yellow line in the first section shows, he keeps a wide base so he can react to any inside moves.

As Cruz pushes further towards the sideline in the second section, Hall’s legs come together. This makes him vulnerable to losing his balance on his own or being knocked over by Cruz. However, Hall’s feet are so fast that  he has quickly reestablished his base and by the time Cruz begins moving towards center field, Hall is on his shoulder.

Screen shot 2013-06-06 at 00.11.29

Not only is Hall quick enough to keep Cruz in his sights, his acceleration allows him to get out in front of the receiver. This completely shuts down the route.

Screen shot 2013-06-06 at 00.22.22

The awareness and aggression that permeates through Hall’s coverage ability is also on show when he plays quick screens or the running game. Hall is an all around cornerback who tackles well and fits perfectly into different zones in coverage. That is a result of his intelligence and toughness, something that was on show on the above play when he quickly read the screen play to take down Domenik Hixon behind the line of scrimmage.

Week 11: Kansas City Chiefs
Total qualifying plays: 14
Failed coverages: 2
Shutdowns: 1
In Position: 11

When you’re covering Dexter McCluster, who is hoping to catch passes from Matt Cassell and Brady Quinn, you don’t even need to leave second gear if you’re Leon Hall. McCluster got outside of him once on a flat route and Steve Breaston came free on a curl on one of their few snaps against each other.

Week 12: Oakland Raiders
Total qualifying plays: 10
Failed coverages: 4
Shutdowns: 4
In Position: 2

Juron Criner beat him deep after motioning at the snap to gain initial separation before turning it into a foot-race down the middle of the field. He also caught a crossing route, but for a short gain on third and long. Denarius Moore used traffic to lose Hall once and caught a touchdown off him later in the game.

The Bengals sent a blitz that overextended Hall in coverage. He and Moore were completely alone with 3/4 of the field to cover. Moore started tight to the formation too so Hall didn’t even have the sideline to use. Moore shimmied before running under a perfectly timed pass from Palmer in the endzone.

Week 13: San Diego Chargers
Total qualifying plays: 19
Failed coverages: 3
Shutdowns: 2
In Position: 14

The most notable play in this game was only so notable because of the touchdown in the previous game. It’s easy to simply say that Hall was beaten for a touchdown by Denarius Moore, but if you want to be realistic he never had a chance of making a play on the ball.

Screen shot 2013-06-06 at 00.44.37

No defensive back in the league is going to consistently cover receivers in this kind of situation. However, there are situations in space where defenders are expected to make plays and Hall typically does when he is asked to.

Against the Chargers, we got a prime example of this.

Screen shot 2013-06-06 at 00.50.16

Hall is lined up over Danario Alexander in the slot. The Bengals are blitzing again, but this time they don’t show it until just before the snap. The safety inside of Hall and the two linebackers close to the line of scrimmage will all rush the quarterback at the snap, leaving the secondary in single coverage with no help.

Screen shot 2013-06-06 at 00.50.31

This time Hall drops off Alexander and has a better position on him from the snap. he understands that he has no safety help to the middle of the field, but knows that he can use the presence of the cornerback and receiver to his side of the field to take away the underneath routes outside.

Screen shot 2013-06-06 at 00.50.45

Alexander runs the route that the defense has set up to defend, so now it’s just a matter of Hall executing his assignment. Hall must have the speed to close on the football and the ball-skills to disrupt the receiver.

Screen shot 2013-06-06 at 00.51.05

Ultimately, he makes the play with ease.

This play was a stark contrast to the one against Oakland and a more realistic assignment for any defensive back.

Week 14: Dallas Cowboys
Total qualifying plays: 24
Failed coverages: 4
Shutdowns: 0
In Position: 20

Miles Austin beat Hall a few times early on with nimble moves in space, but Hall appeared to understand what he was trying to do to him from then on.

Week 15: Philadelphia Eagles
Total qualifying plays: 14
Failed coverages: 2
Shutdowns: 2
In Position: 10

The biggest takeaway from this game was about Nick Foles. For some apparent reason, Foles thought it was a good idea to try and throw a go route to Clay Harbor against Leon Hall in single coverage. Hall didn’t intercept that pass, but he did intercept a similar one directed at Jeremy Maclin later in the game. Foles underthrew it and Hall was aware enough to come back to it for an easy interception.

With Foles under center, the Eagles were getting rid of the ball quickly which limited the number of qualifying plays. Jason Avant was the only receiver who stood out as he ran some outstanding routes to get free from Hall on occasion.

Week 16: Pittsburgh Steelers
Total qualifying plays: 15
Failed coverages: 1
Shutdowns: 4
In Position: 10

Hall abused the Steelers’ receivers for much of this game, but his best play came against Heat Miller.

Screen shot 2013-06-06 at 01.02.53

The Steelers are backed up in their own territory facing a third and 4 in a 0-0 game. Hall is lined up over Heath Miller and Ben Roethlisberger knows he is in man coverage because he moved with him when he went in motion. However, Roethlisberger knows that Miller is Roethlisberger’s most trusted target, especially in third down situations.

Screen shot 2013-06-06 at 01.03.02

Miller is running a varied in route. This is something that the Steelers do often with their tight end in these situations because it allows him to get into positions where he can essentially post up a defender. Miller is a mismatch nightmare for most teams, he’s too polished a receiver to be covered by a linebacker and too big for most cornerbacks.

Hall had issues with tight ends posting him up at times during the season, but he wasn’t going to give up the easy first down on this occasion.

Screen shot 2013-06-06 at 01.03.10

While Miller is still going through his break, Hall is already moving to where he is going to be rather than trying to get tight to his body. Hall gains position inside of him and is able to fend off his attempts to knock him away from the football as it arrives.

Screen shot 2013-06-06 at 01.03.44

His strength to hold off Miller allows him to keep moving towards the football and catch it at the earliest possible point. With one excellent sidestep past Isaac Redman, Hall found his way into the endzone for the first score of the Bengals’ biggest game of the year until that point.

Week 17: Baltimore Ravens
Total qualifying plays: 21
Failed coverages: 4
Shutdowns: 2
In Position: 15

After playing in their most important game of the season a week before, Hall played a larger than expected role in a dead-rubber against the Ravens. At the very least, Deonthe Thompson showed why the Ravens think he could contribute for them in 2013 with a relatively impressive display.

Wildcard: Houston Texans
Total qualifying plays: 21
Failed coverages: 1
Shutdowns: 9
In Position: 11

On the biggest stage, Hall had his best game. Throughout the season, the only thing really missing from Hall’s game was an aggressive coverage style. He didn’t play like Richard Sherman or Stephon Gilmore, but he did still get the job done. In this game, that all changed. In this game Hall wasn’t just covering a raft of different receivers, he was preventing some from getting into their routes altogether and making Andre Johnson look like some ordinary Joe Johnson.

Hall again had a say on the scoreboard when he intercepted Matt Schaub. Just like the Steelers’ game had been, it was the Bengals’ biggest game of the season up until that point and Hall came up big again.

Screen shot 2013-06-06 at 01.19.25

There isn’t any analysis needed for this touchdown, except simply that for a player of his caliber, this was all too easy.

Screen shot 2013-06-06 at 01.20.22


2012 NFL Season Total:
Total qualifying plays: 267
Failed coverages: 40
Shutdowns: 37
In Position: 190
Hall’s success rate for the season: 85%

In Slot:
Total qualifying plays: 145
Failed coverages: 22
Hall’s success rate: 84.8%

 Left cornerback:
Total qualifying plays: 5
Failed coverages: 0
Hall’s success rate: 100%

 Right cornerback:
Total qualifying plays: 117
Failed coverages: 18
Hall’s success rate: 84.6%

Success Rates v Specific Routes
1.Post 100%
2.Seam 90%
3.Double Move 86%
4.Flat 83%
5.Crossing 83%
6.In 82%
7.Slant 82%
8.Curl 79%
9.Out 72%

Quite simply, I very much doubt that there is a better inside cornerback in the NFL than Leon Hall. He doesn’t just do everything well, he does everything exceptionally well and is one of the most underrated players in this league. He and Mike Zimmer were made to work with each other.

You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf

2 thoughts on “Leon Hall: The Numbers, The Tape, The Verdict

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