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Hall gives Falcons a new Deion

Atlanta's DeAngelo Hall intercepts a pass last week that was intended for Philadelphia's Terrell Owens.
Atlanta's DeAngelo Hall intercepts a pass last week that was intended for Philadelphia's Terrell Owens.
John Bazemore, Associated Press

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — After spending most of the night sticking to T.O. like a little brother, DeAngelo Hall wanted something to remember him by.

So the Atlanta Falcons cornerback asked Terrell Owens for an autographed jersey.

"I have nothing but the utmost respect for him," Hall said. "I wanted one of his jerseys, and he said he would send me one. He didn't ask for one of mine. Maybe he will someday."

By then, there could be quite a line for Hall's No. 21. In just his second season, the 2004 first-round draft pick already is making a name as one of the NFL's top pass defenders — a freak of an athlete who can be left alone against game-breaking receivers such as Owens.

In football-speak, they call it being put on an island. To handle such a daunting task, a cornerback must be able to run like a sprinter, leap like a high-jumper, develop an innate sense of what the receiver's next move is going to be, and, most important, have an extremely short memory.

Hall has it all.

In Monday night's 14-10 victory over Philadelphia, he spent nearly the entire game in single coverage against Owens, a perennial Pro Bowler who's doubly dangerous when the spotlight's on him, which it was after a tumultuous offseason in which he demanded a new contract and feuded with quarterback Donovan McNabb.

Owens was hardly shut down, making seven catches for 112 yards. But the decision in this mano-a-mano battle clearly went to Hall, who had Atlanta's lone interception, broke up two passes, made five tackles and kept T.O. out of the end zone.

"It was a pretty even matchup," Hall said. "He made some plays. I made some plays. But we won the game. That's all that matters."

The Falcons haven't had a cornerback with these sort of skills since another guy who wore No. 21 in the early 1990s: Deion Sanders. Not surprisingly, the Neon One was on Hall's list of heroes growing up, and the two share both a number and the bravado that all great cornerbacks have.

"I always feel like I'm the best guy out there," Hall said. "When a guy catches a pass, it almost seems like luck to me. If a guy makes another catch, I'm like, 'Two? How did that happen?"'

He even impressed Falcons quarterback Michael Vick with his defense of Owens.

While the defense is on the field, Falcons quarterback Michael Vick has plenty of things to keep him busy on the sideline. Still, he couldn't help but sneak a glance at the Owens-Hall matchup on the Georgia Dome's video board.

"Big-time players step up in big-time games. That's what DeAngelo did," Vick said. "It's an opportunity to prove yourself. Some guys are going to shy away from that. DeAngelo is certainly not going to do it. He stepped up to the challenge."

Hall is only 5-foot-10, several inches shorter than most receivers he goes against, but no one would ever know. On the sideline just before the first game, he suddenly did a backflip from a standing position. During training camp, he celebrated a good play by doing a pair of cartwheels, followed by a double backflip.

Give that man a 10 for style — and check for hidden springs in his legs.

"Obviously, he's a very unique talent," said Patrick Kerney, the Falcons' Pro Bowl defensive end. "He frees us up to be more aggressive up front. When you can keep T.O. out of the end zone, you've done something special."

Hall also has impressed teammates with his toughness. Unlike Sanders, who tackles much like a matador takes on a bull, Hall isn't hesitant about coming up to challenge a running back.

"I've got a ton of respect for that," Kerney said. "It takes 11 guys to stop the run."

The Seattle Seahawks, who host the Falcons on Sunday, don't have a receiver of Owens' caliber. But Darrell Jackson did have 87 catches for nearly 1,200 yards last season, so he can expect to see a lot of Hall.

"It appeared most of the game that they just let DeAngelo cover Terrell Owens, and that's a huge assignment," Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said. "And then he did a great job, in my opinion. Very, very competitive on every snap."

Hall is still a new blip on most teams' radar screens. He was hurt in the preseason as a rookie, missing the first six games. He returned to start nine times, but managed only two interceptions, far below his expectations.

Still, there were glimpses of Hall's brilliance. In the regular-season finale — at Seattle, no less — he knocked down aging Jerry Rice near the line and stepped forward to intercept Matt Hasselbeck's pass, returning it 48 yards for a touchdown. In the playoffs, Hall held St. Louis star Torry Holt to just two catches for 42 yards.

At this rate, it shouldn't take long for opposing quarterbacks to start throwing the other way.

"I don't know if he has a reputation," Hasselbeck said. "But if he continues to play like he did on Monday night, then I think he will develop one for sure. He played a great game against one of the best receivers."

The Falcons told Hall to keep his trash-talking to a minimum against Owens, which seemed unlikely after the teams got into it during pregame warmups. Hall was right in the middle of things, snatching an Eagles helmet and slamming it to the turf. He was fined $5,000 by the NFL for the act.

But he kept his mouth closed much of the game.

"I know what kind of player he is. He feeds off that," Hall said of Owens. "I did my homework. You've got to know about the guy you're covering. You've got to know what makes him tick."

He finally let loose after Philadelphia's final pass, which was headed T.O.'s way, dropped harmlessly to the turf. After covering Owens all night, Hall figured he might as well follow him back to the Philadelphia bench, talking all the way.

A teammate stepped in, snatching Hall away.

His work was done.

Then, when it was over, Hall slipped into a different mode. He sought Owens, hugged him twice and asked for a jersey.

"We don't hate each other's guts," Hall said. "People see a confident defensive back and think he must be talking trash all the time. But I have nothing but respect for those guys."

Respectful? Sure.

Awe-struck? Hardly.

One of Hall's many tattoos, this one etched at the top of his left arm, says it all: "The World is Mine."

"I've always had that attitude," he said. "I feel like I can match up with anybody. It's just my mentality. The world is mine."