The Pittsburgh Steelers signing Joe Haden in August of 2017 seemed to mark a sea change in the front office and their thinking with respect to building the roster. Since then, they have seemingly been more willing to spend significant money on outside free agents, and to spend draft capital to acquire premium talent.
Haden was a two-time Pro Bowler during his seven seasons with the Cleveland Browns before he ever got here, but they released him unexpectedly, with some questioning whether or not he could be the same player that he once was.
During his first two seasons in Pittsburgh, he proved that and more, and one can’t help but wonder if their success with him didn’t help influence them to make other bold moves like signing Steven Nelson, trading up for Devin Bush, and trading for Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Cameron Heyward has been around since 2011 and has seen the transformation of the defense, which had a lot to do with these four moves. But it started with Haden in 2017, and he recalls what that meant, as he said on the Joe Lefkoe Show podcast.
“Getting Joe, he brought a certain kind of leadership at the back end that we hadn’t had in a while”, he said. “Someone who was not only confident in what he does, but you look out at him and he’s like, ‘I got this’, like, there’s no drop-off”.
“I remember there were games, and this was me just learning Joe—I scream, I talk to my guys—and Joe’s just like, ‘tell me what you need, I got you’”, he continued. “When you can have that type of relationship with a corner, and him understanding, I don’t need all this extra, I know what I’ve got to do and have it done right then and there, man, that’s a skilled, savvy guy that we needed”.
Haden missed five games in his first season with the Steelers due to injury, but he finished the year with one interception and four tackles for loss. The following year, over 15 games, he picked off two passes with a forced fumble and 63 tackles. Then he had one of the best seasons of his career in 2019, intercepting five passes with a forced fumble, 17 passes defensed, and 65 tackles.
He was the first domino to fall in rebuilding a secondary that can now be put in the conversation as one of the top in the NFL. And the Steelers seemingly accepted that they wouldn’t be able to do it through the draft alone. “We’ve just added more guys around, whether it’s Minkah or Steve Nelson. Those guys have become prominent players on our defense”, Heyward said.
Both Haden and Fitzpatrick made the Pro Bowl in 2019, the latter also making the first-team All-Pro list. Nelson hasn’t gotten any formal honoraries, but many outlets throughout the offseason named him as the team’s most underrated or overlooked player. Add Mike Hilton, Terrell Edmunds, and Cameron Sutton, and you round out a very solid secondary group.