Since training camp, every time I've been to Atlanta this season, someone -- a coach, a teammate, a fan or a PR person -- has said the exact same thing to me: Check out DeAngelo Hall, Flem; you gotta check out DeAngelo Hall. On Monday night in the Georgia Dome, I finally got my chance. Sensing a blowout in the making, I decided to hold my own "study Hall" and focus entirely on the Falcons' young cornerback (the eighth pick overall in 2004, which I know because it's engraved into the side of his car). I watched every play, every down, and every pattern to see, exactly, what everyone was talking about. And here's what I found
Pregame: While hyped-up teammates like Patrick Kerney look as if they might spontaneously combust on the sidelines waiting for the game to begin, Hall and strong safety Keion Carpenter share the headphones of an iPod and bounce to TI's "I'm a King."
"TI's from Atlanta and his music just puts us in a Dirty-South, I'm-the-King-of-this-Dome mind of frame," says Hall.
Connected by the same short earphones, they look like Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear in the movie "Stuck on You." But afterward, they're all business. Hall bends over to pray near the bench; and when his hands clasp together, they send a noticeable ripple up the muscles of his arm.
Play 1 (9:46, first-and-10 at NYJ 10): While the rest of the Falcs' defense huddles before their first play, Hall is off on his own near the numbers on the far side of the field. All great corners understand that for 60 minutes each week, they're on an island all by themselves. And they like it that way. "In college, the problem I had was guys didn't challenge me," Hall says. "But I've learned the hard way in this league [that] the one play you take off is the one play they come at you. Against the Pats, I was covering Deion Branch early in the game. I had perfect coverage the whole time, but I eased up for a second just at the end. I don't know, I heard the crowd yell or I thought it was a sack or something; and he laid out and caught a ball on me. Man, guys don't care who DeAngelo Hall is. So I have to think in my mind that they're coming at me every play and I'm all on my own."
Play 2 (5:35, first-and-10 at NYJ 20): When matched up on Jets wideout Justin McCareins, Hall is confident enough to play tight bump-and-run coverage. But when the Jets' best wideout, Laveranues Coles, lines up on the left hash, Hall shows tight man coverage. And then, as soon as Vinny Testaverde looks away, he backpedals to give Coles the cushion, and the respect, he deserves. On this play, it isn't enough. Coles sells a deep fly route, then cuts it off at 12 yards and heads to the sidelines. The chess match has already begun: The Jets run this route several times in the first half, hoping to set up Hall by getting him to bite and then jump over the top with a fly route. Hall falls down while trying to switch directions -- the first of several slips on the night -- and linebacker Keith Brooking must come over to make the tackle. "I had new shoes on, some of Mike Vick's shoes," says Hall (who as a result might get tripped up again by his own shoe company, Reebok, which was not happy to see him wearing Nikes on MNF.) "Now, I don't want to blame it on Mike's shoes so maybe just say I got a little bit sloppy in my footwork."
Play 3 (2:57, second-and-10 at NYJ 47): Coles drives Hall deep on a skinny post route, but Hall has him covered; and by the time Testaverde goes to his second read, the Falcons' line has him smothered. When the ball pops loose, Kerney scoops it up and takes it to the 26 to set up the Falcons' second score. It often goes unsaid how cornerbacks affect the D-line and the D-line reciprocates for the cornerbacks. Interceptions (Hall already has six as a pro) are often caused by a quarterback making a bad throw after being disrupted by the pass rush. In this instance, blanket coverage by Hall forced Testaverde to hold the ball and allowed Antwan Lake that extra split-second he needed.
Play 4 (14:49, second quarter, third-and-6 at NYJ 14): Here's how you can tell that Hall has eye-popping skill, and that he's a good dude, too. In zone coverage, he gets sucked deep inside; but his stunning vertical burst allows him to bounce back into the play and help push Coles out of bounds right into a female fan. Hall, though, is the only one who seems the least bit concerned with the woman's well-being, even circling back after the play to check on her. (She left on a wheelchair with an air cast around her right leg.)
Play 5 (11:38, second-and-10 at NYJ 43): Hall breaks on that out-route again. Had Testaverde not horribly overthrown the ball (is that his trademark, or is it his inability to look off his intended receiver?), Hall would have had a pick. After the game, coaches say Hall ran the route better than McCareins did. "I woulda been dancing," Hall says. "Man, Tagliabue, strike up the check because I was about to write one to you."
Play 6 (10:57, fourth-and-3 at midfield): In one of his few truly bad plays of the night, Hall gets lazy and lets the Jets' punt gunner go downfield without blocking him, and he downs the ball at the 5.
Presnap: All the way up until the snap count, Hall is looking for signs, clues, anything that can help tip him off to the play or the route he's about to face. All great corners line up knowing that they face an array of roughly 50 plays. By using down and distance, they can eliminate 20 percent of them. By checking personnel groupings, another 20 percent. Great DBs keep eliminating things until, just before the snap, they know the offense has only five or six options left.
"I look at everything," Hall says. "I start with formations, then down and distance, personnel. I look at the receiver splits, how tight they are from the next guy, because certain routes require a certain amount of room on the field. And then I watch the QB. My mind is flipping like a Rolodex. But, yeah, sometimes I do still have brain farts out there."
Play 7 (6:15, first-and-10 at NYJ 42): Seven times, the Jets have run a 7- to 12-yard comeback on Hall, patiently setting him up, knowing that an aggressive but inexperienced cover corner is going to bite sooner or later. He finally bites on a stutter-step by McCareins, and gets burned for 35 yards to help set up the Jets' first score. After talking to Hall, here's the best way I can describe the feeling a corner has knowing he just got toasted on a bomb: It's the same feeling you get when, just as you're closing the door to your car, you see the keys sitting on the seat but can't react fast enough to stop the locked door from closing.
"I read 'three-step drop' and anticipated a quick curl, a short out or a slant. But I played it too aggressive and they took a deep ball over my head," Hall says. "Sometimes, with the coverage we're in, I can't jump a route. I have to play it true. When you go away from the scheme, that's when you get beat. And the one time I got greedy tonight, they got me for 35. Guys are gonna catch passes; I know that. I'm not trying to hold guys to zero catches -- that's not me. But if I had just read it right and pressed him, he would have thrown it right to me. I could kick myself for that."
Young corners are dangerous when they think, after a year and a half, that they know everything and are ready to pose for their bust in Canton. I was surprised, pleasantly so, about Hall's reaction to getting burned Monday night.
"I'm not gonna lie to you," Hall says. "I don't have nearly the experience or the knowledge of someone like Troy Vincent. In fact, I've been trying to call him, like every other day, just to talk to him about this job. I can get better. And I will."
Play 8 (5:48, first-and-10 at ATL 23): In a play commonly referred to as an "insert," New York tight end Chris Baker goes in motion. And when RCB Jason Webster passes him off to Carpenter, it creates a hole in gap run coverage that the Jets use to spring Curtis Martin for 11 yards. Hall -- all 5-foot-10, 195 pounds of him -- is left to fill the hole. Corners aren't usually known for their physical tackling skills. In many cases, like the case of Deion Sanders, they actually shy away from contact. Not Hall. He submarines Martin to prevent the TD. At least he tried. Later, Martin will just leap over him for a late score. "The guys I have to come up and tackle are pretty big," Hall says. "You just gotta shoot the gap as hard as you can and see what happens."
Sidelines: The amount of communication that goes on during a game between Hall, Carpenter and Webster, as well as between the players and DB coach Brett Maxie and D-coordinator Ed Donatell, is unreal. During every break, they're talking and acting out footwork. Hall has also perfected the art of chatting up the refs at every opportunity (which might've helped him get an offensive interference call against the Jets). Right up until the snap, they're talking and sending hand signals back and forth. When Carpenter screams to them and crosses his arms, they switch to zone coverage right before the snap. And when Hall reads a fade route in Cover 2, he yells back to Carpenter to get his back because he's gonna jump the route.
"Man I would have never done that as a rookie -- never," Hall says. "That's the kind of stuff that separates good players from great players. Athletically, I'm pretty darn good; that's why I got drafted eighth overall. But in the big picture, don't none of that matter. It's all about study and film and experience and game knowledge. Because a 4.2 running the wrong way is always gonna get beat by a 4.5 running the right way."
Maxie, meanwhile, is constantly running up to them with fresh Polaroids and demonstrating for Hall the proper way to keep his hips open toward the play, which prevents him from wasting any movement. After the Martin run, Donatell scribbles out the play and a new scheme to cover the insert on a grease board. When it happens again, Webster won't pass off the tight end and Carpenter will be free to fill the gap where Martin tries to run.
Deep Thoughts: I know. I know. I was only supposed to be watching Hall. But, dang! It was a boring game, and these thoughts crossed my mind. (1) I know Jim Mora answers all the Vick critiques by pointing to his winning percentage, but there are times when I think No. 7 has regressed. Not as a passer, but as a quarterback. He rolls out with no intention of passing. He throws every ball the same speed, without touch, which caused tipped balls and interceptions that kept the Jets in the game. (2) And by my count, this led Vick to be exposed to the possibility of a major injury seven times Monday night. Most teams like that number to be somewhere between zero and one. (3) The Jets. Ugh. At times, and I don't say this lightly, they reminded me of the Ravens. Bad penalties. No playmakers. Terrible screw-ups. (4) Speaking of which, I know he's filling in from his regular position at guard, but NYJ center Pete Kendall almost got his teammates killed. Three times. (5) The PA system at the Atlanta airport kept announcing delays due to "William" (apparently, hurricanes can have sex changes). (6) People are shocked and dismayed about the Saints' possible move to San Antonio, and then Los Angeles. Why? The Browns, Colts, Titans, Raiders, Rams and Cardinals have all moved at least once. Moving for more coin is what the NFL is all about. (7) The best tributes to Wellington Mara mentioned that he had 11 kids. Meaning, he fathered a football team, as well as an entire league.
Play 9 (3:41, fourth-and-1 at ATL 3): Sorry, missed this one while watching two fans in a big fight in the stands just below the Georgia Dome press box.
Play 10 (4:19, third quarter, third-and-13 at ATL 49): I have to admit that for most of the night, I was waiting for Hall to do something spectacular. And then, early in the third quarter, I realized what he was doing: He was playing us, all of us. The Jets. The fans. The media. Me. Great corners are cool dudes, subdued poker players who are impossible to read. All night, Hall was playing possum on the deep fade, covering the route but in a way that would give the Jets confidence to keep trying the pass. He was just waiting for the right moment to pounce.
And this was it. He hangs with Coles until the ball goes in the air, then he separates, plays center field, and easily nabs his fourth pick of the season. Later, he'll just barely miss on another one in the end zone.
"I had a bit of a chess match going with them tonight," he says. "You try to make them think they have the deep ball. So I jumped him early on the route, which made them read press, which made them think they could complete a deep ball and put it in the air. And then I did the rest."
Rest of the Game: One word. Boring. Hall's pick is essentially the end of the game for the Jets, no matter how hard Vick tries to keep them in it with his arm. Until desperation time in the late going, the Jets seemed almost well, skeert to throw Hall's way.
12:53 a.m.: With the locker room nearly empty, Hall rolls up his designer pinstripped sleeve so the trainers can give him a flu shot before he leaves for the bye week. It goes right into the tattoo that reads: The World is Mine. (Had I not kept him with extra questions, he's certain he could have sneaked out without facing the needle. "My bad," I tell him.) Truth be told, yeah, he winced a little when the needle went in. Maybe the pain is from trying to hold up his giant, diamond-studded cufflinks. As guys begin to leave, word in the locker room from coaches is: Be careful. Meaning, don't get in any trouble during your bye week that would jeopardize our 5-2 start. As Hall leaves the locker room, a coach yells to him, "What they throw at you tonight, like three times?"
Hall laughs, then turns to me and says, "For me, it's about mastering my craft; and I still got a long way to go, but games like tonight, they make me feel good about the progress I'm making."
David Fleming is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. His book, "Noah's Rainbow," a father's emotional journey from the death of his son to the birth of his daughter, will be published in the fall by Baywood. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.