Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson
In the midst of an obviously dismal season, the Bengals can point to at least one positive: the play of their starting cornerbacks. Former first-round picks Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph are developing nicely and should be the cornerstones of Cincinnati's defense for years. Both players are quite athletic, physical and built well enough. Each has some versatility in their abilities to play a variety of coverages and support the run.
Though Hall is in his second NFL season (Joseph is in his third), he probably is the more technically sound of the two. Hall had a rough rookie year but closed the season on a strong note and continues to show improvement. He isn't quite as explosive or athletic as Joseph, but his route recognition is sound and he is a good tackler against wideouts and running backs alike. Joseph is more of a risk-taker, the corner who eventually should make more big plays and will be better equipped to neutralize an opponent's No. 1 receiver.
If you haven't heard of either player, there's probably a reason, even beyond Cincinnati's disappointing 1-8-1 record. The Bengals' pass rush is abysmal (11 sacks), and the lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks has forced Hall and Joseph (combined one interception in 2008) to cover their men longer than what is considered ideal. Still, the duo has been quietly effective. The Bengals are holding opponents to a respectable 6.5 yards per pass attempt and have given up fewer big pass plays (20 yards or more) than all but a handful of teams. Hall and Joseph deserve a lot of the credit for those figures, which are all the more impressive considering how little help they get from the pass rush.
It also adds to the interest in Thursday's game, Cincinnati at Pittsburgh. The Steelers' offensive line is responsible for one of the league's worst sack rates, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger -- for all his playmaking ability -- has a tendency to hold the ball too long and make risky throws. Something has to give.
Hall usually will line up over Santonio Holmes, with Joseph covering Hines Ward. Ideally, a two-deep shell designed to prevent the big play will enable the Bengals' young corners to get physical with the Steelers' receivers at the line of scrimmage. But if Cincy can't stop Willie Parker and the run game with its front seven -- which seems unlikely -- a an extra defender in the box may be necessary. That's when things would get interesting for Hall and Joseph. They would undoubtedly play some off coverage and Cover 3 in that situation. But on a team with nothing to lose, they might also be asked to play some press man in front of a single-high safety look, with coordinator Mike Zimmer sending more blitzes than usual. Roethlisberger has thrown 41 passes in each of the Steelers' last two games and, despite avoiding a turnover last week, can be pressured into throwing to the wrong team.
For the Bengals to keep up with the Steelers on Thursday, Hall and Joseph must be on top of their game -- and maybe get their hands on a pass or two.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.