The Doctor Is In: Circle The Patriots Game For Joe Haden’s Possible Return

The Pittsburgh Steelers had been pretty lucky on the injury front until CB Joe Haden, acquired as a free agent in the preseason, went down with a leg injury during the Week 10 win over the Indianapolis Colts. Haden was seen on the sidelines later in the game with crutches and a “leg sleeve” – a compressive brace, most likely made of neoprene – on his left leg. Within the next few days, the team announced that Haden had suffered a high fibula fracture.

Other than some support for teammates on twitter, we haven’t seen much from Haden since then. A mere 8 days later, he posted a video on Instagram showing him peddling an exercise bike and looking pretty comfortable doing it.

As of Sunday 11/26, multiple Pittsburgh beat reporters were tweeting that Joe was off crutches. One even mentioned that he was seen walking briskly through the Steelers facility. In an interview on 11/29, Haden reported that he was working with trainers to rehab, riding a bike and working on a treadmill in the pool…both activities designed to add strength but limit weight-bearing on the injured leg.

There has been little doubt that Haden will be back this season, especially once he avoided being placed on IR (a designated to return label would still have kept him off the field until January). The big question is when can he play again?

Let’s back up for a second and look at the lower leg anatomy:

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There are two bones between the knee and the ankle. The tibia, also known as the shin bone, forms the knee joint proximally with the femur and the ankle joint below. The tibia is the larger and stronger of the two lower leg bones and supports the weight. The fibula runs parallel to the tibia and is much thinner. The fibula serves as a support for the tibia and plays a role in stabilizing the ankle and supporting the muscles of the lower leg.

At the proximal end of the fibula, the rounded enlargement, or head, attaches to the proximal tibia and is also an insertion point for the biceps femoris tendon. Just below the femoral head, the peroneal nerve (the one that was injured in Sean Spence’s horrible knee injury) wraps around the fibula.

A “high” fibula fracture means that the break occurred near the fibula head, not near the middle of the shaft or lower near the ankle. Here’s an Xray image of a high fibula fracture (left) as well as a healed high fibular fracture (right):

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Here’s where Haden and the Steelers got really lucky: he didn’t have any associated ankle fracture or ligament injury, which is pretty common. In additional to that, he probably didn’t have a complete separation of the fibula head from the shaft, or a displaced fracture. This would have affected the biceps femoris muscle function as well. From everything the team has told us, it appears to be a non-displaced high fibular fracture.

Fibular fractures typically take 4-6 weeks to heal. It’s not a common injury seen in the NFL as an isolated injury, so there aren’t a lot of comparisons out there. Most fibular fractures have associated ligamentous injuries which delay healing. In 2013, Green Bay Packers WR Randall Cobb was placed on IR/DTR and returned to play 10 weeks after his injury. Oakland Raiders QB Derek Carr sustained a fibular fracture in December last season. The Raiders season ended shortly after that, so it’s hard to know when he could have come back.

There is no doubt that the trainers and doctors will make their recommendations to the coaching staff with Haden’s health and best interests as their only priority. And we all know that HC Mike Tomlin won’t think about putting a player on the field until the medical team gives clearance. So Haden’s return depends first and foremost on his “availability” as Tomlin might say.

Once Haden gets cleared to practice, I think he will get back in the starting line-up quickly. Coty Sensabaugh hasn’t performed well enough to make us forget that we are missing Haden right now. And now matter how well Cameron Sutton acquits himself this week against the Baltimore Ravens, Haden is the better option by far. Let’s not forget (because absolutely no one has), the New England Patriots are coming to town on December 17th for what could likely be the battle for the #1 AFC seed. And it would sure be nice to have the option a strong nickel and dime defense against a Tom Brady/Bill Belichick offense. If Haden is well enough to play, I can’t see Tomlin saving him.

Most of the Pittsburgh beat reporters are putting Joe Haden at 50/50 to play in the Week 15 game against the Patriots. Maybe I’m just an optimistic fan, but I have that game circled on my calendar for the cornerback’s return to the starting line-up. And the timing couldn’t be better.

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