The Pittsburgh Steelers are not a team that likes to trail one cornerback on a specific player. At least they haven’t been since Ike Taylor exited his prime. They drabbled in that just a bit late last season with Joe Haden following Houston Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, however, and he got to do it again yesterday afternoon against Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons, who came into the game leading the league in receiving yards.
Said Haden after the game about when he was told he would be following Jones, “that’s what you look forward to. That’s what I do it for. You look forward to playing against guys like that”. While we will still need some time to sort out the finer details of how this worked in terms of execution, it seemed to be a prevalent feature of the defense, and was obviously successful.
Steelers CB Joe Haden on the team telling him he’d be traveling with Julio Jones, who finished with 62 yards on five catches: “That’s what you look forward to. That’s what I do it for. You look forward to palying againet guys like that.”
— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) October 7, 2018
Jones, who averages more receiving yards per game than anybody ever in the history of the NFL, was held without a catch through the first half, targeted four times. Haden was in direct coverage on two of them, both deep throws.
It took until the fourth quarter before he finally caught a pass. He was targeted once on the third quarter, an incompletion on third and nine, with Mike Hilton credited as having coverage on the play. in the 47th minute of the game, however, he caught an 18-yard pass against Coty Sensabaugh to break the dry spell.
He would finish the game with four more receptions, with a long gain of 18 yards, making good on each of his five targets, but would finish with five receptions for 62 yards on nine targets and virtually no impact on the game.
By the time he caught his first pass, the score was 27-10. His one reception did come on the Falcons’ first and only scoring possession of the second half, which made it a 10-point game, but he would not touch the ball again while he team was trailing by fewer than 17 points.
If you can prevent one of the greatest wide receivers in the game from catching any pass while his team is trailing by fewer than 17 points, then I think you can take credit for a job well done. And while Haden drew the majority of the coverage assignments against Jones, it was still a community effort, so to speak.
Of course, this strategy was birthed out of the struggles of Artie Burns, who is supposed to be the team’s other starting cornerback, but his on-field miscues have gotten him demoted. While he is starting again, he is still rotating with Sensabaugh. If they had two cornerbacks they trusted, Haden likely doesn’t shadow Jones.