The Cincinnati Bengals let it be known prior to their matchup with the New York Giants, in Week 10 of the NFL season, that they would be asking cornerback Leon Hall to trail Giants’ receiver Victor Cruz. Not only were the Bengals true to their word, but Hall’s performance against Cruz was crucial in what was ultimately a comprehensive victory. Although, admittedly, it was far from perfect.
Grading defensive backs in the NFL is not easy. Distinguishing between assignment and reaction is subjective, while it is impossible to know what the play-call for the whole defense is from snap-to-snap. Generally, you can interpret whether the defense is in zone or man coverage, but not on every single snap. Therefore, I take a set approach to analyzing players in coverage.
This analysis is not of Hall in zone coverage or his ability to play the run. The only plays that are taken into consideration are clear man coverage plays. Plays with safety/linebacker help are included. Furthermore, if receivers are not afforded enough time to get into their route, i.e. if the ball is thrown on a quick screen, that play is also not considered.
The ball does not have to be thrown in Hall’s direction for the coverage to fail. This is NOT an analysis of how many completions Hall allowed, that can be found elsewhere, this is an analysis of how good Hall’s coverage was on every snap. If Hall is not in position to make a play on a relatively accurately thrown football to Cruz, then, the play is filed under this category.
Shut Down refers to the plays when Hall is in such good coverage that any pass sent his way would have no chance of making the receiver and almost certainly result in an interception. Shut Down plays also occur when the receiver’s space is closed out to the point that it’s impossible for him to catch the ball with two feet in bounds.
This tag is used on plays where Hall is in position to make a play on the football if it comes his direction, but where Cruz would still have a chance at making the reception. A good rule of thumb for this is for the receiver to be within arm’s length of the defender.
Total Qualifying Plays: 28
Failed Coverages: 7
Shut Down: 3
In Position: 18
Other Snaps in Coverage: 23
Because the Bengals’ defensive line was easily sweeping past the Giants’ offensive line on most plays, the Giants’ receivers weren’t getting much time to come free against tight coverage. That, coupled with the Bengals’ fast start, meant that the Bengals’ secondary had a much easier day than they would have originally expected. Despite that, Cruz still found ways to separate from Hall on occasion.
You can’t expect to shut down a shifty receiver like Cruz, but Hall won’t be happy that he let Cruz loose on 25 percent of his snaps in man coverage against him. Fortunately for him, the Cruz only caught three receptions for 26 yards on the day as the Bengals did an excellent job of mixing up their coverages(there were 16 snaps in zone coverage, four with Hall on other receivers and three with passes too quick to determine the coverage).
Cruz beat Hall first when Eli Manning had time to hang in the pocket and he faked an inside run before breaking free towards the sideline against single coverage. Twice with safety help, Hall couldn’t contain Cruz when he ran crisp out routes deep to split the two defenders. Cruz caught two passes against Hall when he was dropping too deep to give up eight yards each on comeback routes. His other catch on the day came against zone coverage after Hall had passed him off to another defender.
It wasn’t the balls that Cruz caught opposed to the ones he didn’t that really set the alarms off. Twice Cruz beat Hall deep and would have had touchdowns that the cornerback could do nothing to prevent. On the first occasion he was too aggressive at the line of scrimmage and Cruz beat him deep down the left sideline, but the ball never came.The second was a dropped target when he beat Hall underneath to streak free down the seam for what would have been an easy touchdown.
Hall did contain Cruz for the most part and did a job for his team. He lined up in the slot with Cruz 44 times, free safety once, and only got help from teammates 10 times throughout the game. Maybe most importantly, on the one occasion when Cruz got the ball in the open field against Hall, the cornerback tackled him immediately for no gain.