As the Baltimore Ravens desperately tried to get their offense going with a little more than six minutes remaining, Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph(notes) came up with yet another critical play on Sunday. Joseph knocked down a third-down pass intended for Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason(notes) during Cincinnati's 17-7 victory.
While Joseph stood out in that sequence, he's not the only playmaker in the Bengals secondary. Not only has fellow cornerback Leon Hall(notes) been a key contributor, but the pair has helped one another all season – the kind of synergy that has taken them to the top of the heap in the NFL among cornerback duos and brought the surprising 6-2 Bengals to the top of the AFC North.
"I wouldn't say all that," Hall said about their standing as the top cornerback tandem. "I feel like we're coming into our own and we're playing well, but that other stuff doesn't matter. We're just trying to play well as a defense, just trying to be the best defense on the field each game. That's what we talk about."
Actually, Hall and Joseph, who each had an interception Sunday, talk about more than general goals. There are specific situations, subtle nuances of the game that may come up early in a contest and then reoccur later. The throw to Mason is a prime example of a little thing Hall discussed with Joseph early in the game that came back to help later.
"[The Ravens] were running the out pattern a certain way and we talked about it in the first half after they ran it at me," said Hall, whose four interceptions through eight games this season are one short of his career high set as a rookie in 2007 (Joseph has already tied his career high with four this season). "When they ran it later, Johnathan was ready for it. The same thing happened with the way they were running an in route and he told me and that helped me later. … We've been like that since I got here and he was already here. We get along so good, we're talking all the time about the game, about how certain people play, the things we can do."
As a result of that communication between the two former first-round NFL draft picks (Hall in 2007 and Joseph in '06), the Bengals were the best defense on the field in a matchup with the mighty Ravens for the second time this season, a statement that might have drawn guffaws before the season. The idea that the hapless Bengals defense could run with the Ravens would seem utterly ridiculous.
What the Bengals have, however, is the ability to shut down opposing wide receivers on a regular basis with Hall and Joseph. That has been the key to beating the Ravens, who have otherwise been one of the top offensive teams in the league.
In two games against Cincinnati, the Ravens have scored only two offensive touchdowns, both coming in the fourth quarter. Moreover, Baltimore wide receivers have combined for only nine catches and 113 yards in those games. As a result, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco(notes) has had his two worst performances of the season this year, including a stunningly low 48.3 quarterback rating on Sunday.
Hall said the main reason is a sense of anxiety that Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has created on a regular basis. That sense of anxiety seems to drive the Bengals' combination of talented players and misfits.
"Every week, coach Zimmer tells us, 'The best defense on the field is going to win.' " said Hall, who intercepted Flacco late in the second quarter. "When we talked about it this week, we said, 'Hey, the Ravens have a defense that can pitch a shutout.' They've been like that for a long time and we're just trying to get there still. That's what all our guys talk about, getting to that level of respect."
Some Bengals are trying to get any level of respect. While Hall, Joseph and linebacker Keith Rivers(notes) are all former first-round picks, others such as defensive tackle Tank Johnson(notes), linebacker Dhani Jones(notes) and safety Roy Williams are among a group of players who have been cut by other teams.
"Everybody on this defense is trying to prove something," Hall said.
To some extent, that includes Hall and Joseph, who during their careers have had to deal with mouthy teammate and wide receiver Chad Ochocinco(notes) in practice. Ochocinco agreed with the notion that Hall and Joseph have risen to the top of the list of cornerback duos, surpassing the likes of the Green Bay Packers' combo of Al Harris(notes) and Charles Woodson(notes). In fact, he even took some credit for it.
"Hey, they go against me in practice all the time, they better be good," Ochocinco said with no hint of a joke.
"Hey, that's the truth," Hall said with a slight laugh. "My first couple of years, he got the best of me every day in practice. He's so good, so quick with what he does. You have to get better. He made me and Johnathan better. At least now I get my share of plays in.
"Either that or Chad's going to tell you all about it."
Be it Ochocinco talking to Hall and Joseph or Hall and Joseph just talking to each other, it's helped them get to this point.
- The Ravens