Following the offseason departures of Mike Hilton and Steven Nelson, two of the crucial players in the Steelers secondary over the past two seasons, Joe Haden stands alone as the elder statesmen and longest tenured returning starter in the secondary. In fact, since being cut by the Browns in 2017, Joe Haden has seen a career resurgence, compiling 48 passes defended and 10 interceptions across four seasons in Pittsburgh. Nonetheless, it is no secret that Joe Haden is no longer the traveling shutdown cornerback that he was during his prime years in Cleveland, and thus, his role in Pittsburgh’s defense has certainly helped him continue to produce at a high level well into his 30s.
Entering his upcoming 12th NFL season at the age of 32, many question whether Haden is headed toward a steep decline off the proverbial “30 year old cornerback” cliff, although, I certainly would place my money on quite the opposite. Ultimately, in Pittsburgh’s defense, which can generate pressure with four or five rushers at a far higher rate than any other defense, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, and company can be extremely creative with their post snap rotations and coverage assignments. Thus, whether playing man coverage with a specific leverage away from his help or sitting in zone coverage, Joe Haden remains the Steelers’ most reliable man coverage defender on possession downs, which can often decide the outcome of tight games. Today, we’ll be taking a deeper look into what makes Haden so effective in these game altering situations despite his lack of top end athleticism, and moreover, why it’s easy to expect more of the same ahead of his 2021 campaign.
Haden’s Man Coverage on the Boundary
While the Steelers have trusted their cornerbacks in man coverage at higher rates than the vast majority of NFL teams since their acquisition of Minkah Fitzpatrick via trade in 2019, they rarely rely on Cover 0, more often opting to give their cornerbacks help in Cover 1 robber, Cover 2 man, and Cover 2 buzz sets. Thus, although Haden may no longer have the speed to carry the games best receivers across the entire field as he used to, through understanding and trusting his help defenders, Haden is still able to blanket defenders by playing with great leverage.
Against the Bengals in Week 10, the Steelers relied heavily on Cover 2 man buzz on possession downs throughout the game, forcing rookie Joe Burrow to challenge Haden and Nelson on throws outside of the numbers. Below, matched up in man coverage against Auden Tate in a third and long situation, Haden aligns at the sticks with heavy outside leverage, weaving toward the sideline patiently to maintain his leverage before using a smooth T-step break to close on the comeback and force a Bengals punt with an impressive pass breakup.
On the prior possession, with the Steelers once again in Cover 2 man buzz, bracketing both inside receivers, Haden aligns in off man coverage with outside leverage against A.J. Green, once again maintaining his leverage with a soft shuffle technique before opening to carry the “bang eight” post, tracking the ball in the air beautifully, and undercutting the underthrown pass for a diving pass breakup. Note Haden’s understanding that in a 2 Man Buzz scheme, he must always protect away from his help, understanding that any throw Burrow makes to the middle of the field will need to be lofted over a crowd of help underneath defenders, giving him ample time to close on the high-arching pass.
After struggling for a majority of a Week 4 contest against the Eagles Travis Fulgham, Haden once again drew a man coverage matchup against Fulgham with the Steelers protecting a late 31-29 lead on a third down past midfield. With the Eagles opting to align in an empty formation, the Steelers countered by rushing four and playing Cover 1 robber with Minkah as the robber defender.
As Fulgham, the wide receiver to a field trips set, aligned more than two yards beyond the numbers, Haden is presented with two clear tells, the first being that the wide receiver in a trips set will run an in-breaking route the vast majority of the time, and the second being that given Fulgham’s alignment, he will be unable to run anything outbreaking, and does not have the sideline room to threaten Haden vertically. Thus, at the snap, Haden stays square in press coverage to protect his inside leverage, disrupting Fulgham at the top of the route with a physical two-hand jam, staying connected to the receivers top shoulder across the field and finishing with a violent right hand chop to the pocket, finishing the rep to the ground to secure the timely pass breakup.
The Steelers would go on to score and put the game out of reach at 38-29 on the next possession, and Haden’s veteran instincts helped the defense get off the field in a crucial situation on a day where he had been targeted early and often.
While many younger, less-experienced cornerbacks across the league can perform at a higher level in man coverage than the 32 year old Joe Haden, it is his communication and lightning quick instincts that reveal his true value in the Pittsburgh defense.
Late in a Week 5 blowout victory against the Cleveland Browns, with the Steelers in a Cover 1 five-man pressure on third and short, Keviin Stefanski opts to out-leverage the Steelers with a motion into tight bunch, sending Jarvis Landry to the flat against immediately, a nearly impossible assignment for Cam Sutton to cover. Nonetheless, Haden aligns in outside leverage to the tight bunch, communicates a switch on the fly, taking a read step before closing rapidly to the flat and nearly securing the interception, and forcing the Browns into a fourth and short situation, which they would ultimately fail to convert, on what should have been an easy pitch and catch against the Steelers’ man coverage defense.
Thus, after being plagued for years with miscommunications in the secondary, the addition of brilliant football minds such as Joe Haden and Minklah Fitzpatrick have allowed the Steelers to flourish in a variety of defensive schemes with the understanding that their veteran savvy players are now able to make quick adjustments on the fly, making the defense adaptable to any situation.
While the only non-third down clip thus far, Haden’s play recognition skills are on display here in an isolated Cover 1 man coverage matchup against Jonnu Smith, the nub tight end to the boundary in the Titans Strong I-formation. Haden, aligned in off coverage with heavy outside leverage, diagnoses the over route immediately, transitioning laterally to close ground, and arrives at the catch point to get his left arm across for the clean pass breakup, a play eerily reminiscent to the one that caused Mikah Fitzpatrick’s first interception in a Steelers uniform more than a year earlier.
Thus, while no one is going to argue that Haden has lost a step in the long speed department, his ability to trust his eyes and film study allows him to remain one of the twitchiest and most instinctual corners in the game, and undeniably the Steelers’ most impactful player at the position.
While Haden’s man coverage fails to resemble the All-Pro levels of his 2013 campaign, the Steelers’ ability to generate a pass rush with their front four and be extremely creative with their safeties post snap rotations in man coverage sets allows Haden to protect away from his leverage, and forces quarterbacks to make long throws in his direction. Thus, while 32 years old is essentially viewed as dinosaur years for cornerbacks in today’s league, the Steelers’ third down defense is designed on forcing opposing quarterbacks to make tough throws outside the numbers against Joe Haden, a matchup which they rightfully feel comfortable in.
Haden’s Playmaking in Zone Coverage Assignments
While Pittsburgh’s scheme is certainly more man coverage oriented than it was in years past, their ability to throw in a mix of zone coverages to keep quarterbacks off guessing is as effective as ever due to solid communication and situational awareness.
Below in their Week 5 matchup, the Steelers opt to deploy a Cover 3 zone on third down and long in an attempt to force Baker Mayfield to check the ball down short of the sticks. Nonetheless, a window opens for Baker to attack a hole in the coverage as Mike Hilton fails to gain proper depth as a slot defender, allowing space for Odell Beckham Jr. to come open along the sideline past the sticks on a deep comeback.
Haden though, understanding the sticks, stays patient in his shuffle technique, briefly opening into a crossover run before breaking on the comeback, closing ground from out of phase, and arriving at the catch point to force an airborne Beckham Jr. out of bounds, using the sideline to his advantage to secure the breakup. While a completion here would have been at the fault of Mike Hilton for not sinking enough as a flat defender, Haden’s patience and film study ensured that the Steelers successfully got off the field after forcing the Browns into a difficult third and long situation.
Potentially the scheme which has unlocked Haden’s potential the most in his time in Pittsburgh has been their increased use of a Cover 2 man “trap” scheme, first popularized by Nick Saban, in which the boundary cornerbacks play man coverage from a shuffle technique and will break on any route by #2 which breaks outward within the first five yards. Below against Cleveland, on the final third down attempt of the game, Haden takes two read steps out of his shuffle eyeing the #2 receiver before triggering on the outbreaking route, closing rapidly, and arriving at the catch point with violence to secure the third down pass breakup.
While seemingly subtle, Haden’s slow read steps both provide the quarterback with illusion that he is gaining depth to carry #1 vertically while also occupying the window for the hole shot and forcing the underneath throw, which he is in position to close on and affect at the catch point.
Deployed in the same scheme early in a Week 12 contest against the Baltimore Ravens, Haden aligns at nine yards depth to give the illusion of off-man coverage, taking a single shuffle step before triggering on the pivot route before James Proche had even come into his break, a testament to his film study and understanding of formation tendencies.
Haden would ultimately undercut the throw and return it 14 yards for the game’s first touchdown, one which would prove crucial in the teams 19-14 victory, showcasing his status as the secondaries second best playmaker, trailing only the perennial All-Pro Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Hence, while the Steelers are no longer the zone dominant team that they were for much of the early Keith Butler era, Haden’s ability to occupy throwing lanes and force turnovers in a variety of zone coverages will certainly help stabilize a secondary which has many moving parts ahead of the 2021 season. While Sutton may be the more talented man coverage defender and better athlete at this juncture of his career, I tend to believe that the Steelers will continue to remain comfortable relying on Joe Haden’s veteran instincts against opposing teams’ top targets on possession downs.
All told, the Steelers defense finished sixth in the NFL, allowing opponents to convert just 37.71% of their third down attempts, a testament to the play of Joe Haden and Minkah Fitzpatrick working in tandem with the league’s best pass rush. Thus, while Haden’s health is always something to monitor, look for him to continue serving as an important factor to this defense’s success in 2021, and moreover, help the team compete as a Super Bowl contender behind a revamped Matt Canada offense.