When the Pittsburgh Steelers first signed Joe Haden back in August of 2017, it wasn’t immediately obvious how much the team would plan to employ him in the same ways that he saw while he was with the Cleveland Browns, where he made the Pro Bowl two times.
That includes using him to shadow another team’s top wide receiver, which they only ended up doing significantly once or twice in 2017, most notably against DeAndre Hopkins. But it’s become a much more prominent feature of their defense this year, and especially since Artie Burns got demoted.
While not every team actually has a legitimate number one receiver—or one that plays on the boundary—Haden has gotten work shadowing the likes of A.J. Green, Julio Jones, John Brown, Devin Funchess, and to a lesser extent, if I’m not mistaken, Emmanuel Sanders. Interestingly and oddly enough, Sanders had the best game against him in that group.
With the Steelers hosting the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, don’t be surprised if Haden spends a lot of time working against Keenan Allen, who is one of the top wide receivers in the league. Though he doesn’t lead the team in touchdowns, he has the clear edge in targets, receptions, and receiving yards.
During his media availability yesterday, one of the topics that defensive coordinator Keith Butler was asked about was how he decides who Haden is going to shadow. And as you might imagine, he has a typically simple answer.
“Whoever is getting the most balls or whoever we feel like their best receiver is, a combination of both”, he said, per the team’s communications department. “They have somebody they want to get the ball to, why do they want to get the ball to them? They do it for a reason because they are successful, so we try to matchup Joe with their most successful receiver”.
Regarding the Chargers’ group in particular, Butler did say that their wide receivers group is “probably up there a bit in terms of the guys we’ve played”. In addition to Allen, Los Angeles also has Tyrell Williams and Mike Williams. Of course both of their running backs get a lot of work in the passing game, but Haden is not going to shadow a running back.
It’s a lot easier for a team that doesn’t have a clear number two cornerback to make the decision to use their top guy to follow the player on the opposition that they want to make sure is not going to be the reason they are beaten.
The Steelers surely wish they were not in that position, with Burns more and more looking like a bust, but that is where they are, and that has in turn made using Haden as a cover corner an asset that they have been able to be more flexible in deploying.