When the Steelers acquired Joe Haden ahead of the 2017 season, many believed the 28 year olds best years were behind him. Quite to the contrary, Haden, now entering the 2021 season at the ripe age of 32, has seen a career resurgence in Pittsburgh, recording 48 passes defended, 10 interceptions, two forced fumbles, and a pick six over his 56 games played in a Steelers uniform.
While I certainly disagree with the notion that all players at the position are destined to fall off the cliff after age 30, father time is certainly quicker to catch up to players who are overly reliant on their raw athletic tools. As Haden, who clocked a mediocre 4.52 forty yard dash back at the 2010 NFL combine, has always been a corner who succeeded through superior technique, efficient footwork, and attention to detail, it’s unsurprising that he’s been able to succeed well into his 30s. Moreover, after struggling with injuries during the latter half of his tenure in Cleveland, as well as his inaugural season in Pittsburgh, he’s missed just three starts over the past three seasons, earning a Pro Bowl nomination in 2019, his first since 2014.
While it’s reasonable to point out that Haden is no longer the All-Pro level cornerback that he was during the height of his powers in Cleveland, he has adapted to a new style of play which meshes effectively within the Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler scheme. As he’s no longer asked to shadow opposing teams top options in a Steelers scheme that does not travel its corners, Haden continues to use his continuously growing bag of tricks to leave his imprint on every game he suits up for. Today, we’ll be taking a deeper dive into a few of Haden’s savvy veteran tools which have helped him, along with Minkah Fitzpatrick, spearhead the recent turnaround in the Pittsburgh defense, and their ability to generate takeaways.
Understanding of Tendencies based on game situation, down and distance, splits and formation
Since his collegiate career at Florida, Joe Haden has always stood out as a player with an extremely high football IQ. Over the past three seasons, all of which have seen Haden record multiple interceptions and double digit pass breakups, he has flourished in a talented Steelers defense through dedication to film study, particularly in identifying and utilizing opposing teams various offensive tendencies to his advantage.
Below, aligned to the boundary in a deep 1/3 zone assignment in the Steelers Cover 3 scheme, Haden is able to both key down and distance, protecting the sticks even as a deep 1/3 defender, while also deciphering which routes Odell Beckham Jr. could potentially run as the isolated X receiver to the boundary. As a result, Haden is able to stay patient and is more than prepared to defend the deep comeback on third down, breaking in unison with the receiver, and forcing him out of bounds before he could get his feet down. While a catch here would’ve been credited to Mike Hilton, who failed to gain enough depth as the “scf”(seam-curl-flat) defender, it is plays like this that showcase Haden’s veteran instincts, and irreplaceable value in this secondary.
Joe Haden excels in both press and off man coverage assignments, but what truly sets him apart, is that he deploys them strategically based on what he is able to decipher from pre snap tendencies the offense has shown. Below on a crucial third and short against the Eagles in a one score game, Haden chooses to deploy press coverage with heavy inside leverage due to a formational tendency, in which the outside receiver to a trips set will run a shallow in breaking route nearly 90% of the time in any offense.
Moreover, Haden understands that on third and short late in the game, with the Eagles down two, they are aiming to attack the sticks for a conversion, which from Fulgham’s split two yards beyond the numbers, essentially limits his route tree to slants and curls, as hitches are most often converted against press coverage alignments.
At the snap, Haden opens to protect inside, matching Fulgham’s diamond release before stunning the receiver with a two hand jam at the top of his route, staying in phase, and finishing through the pocket with physicality to ensure the pass breakup, and a Steelers win in Week 4. While Haden may be 32 years old, there is no player on the roster that Tomlin and Butler feel more comfortable with in spots like this, and for good reason, his film study turns a guessing game into one of calculated risks.
Playing off of his help and protecting away from his help with proper leverage
While the Steelers “blitz”, sending creative five man rushes at high rates, they rarely run Cover 0 blitzes in comparison to the division rival Ravens, who leave their players in isolated man coverage frequently. Thus, it is extremely important for Haden, and any other Steelers defender, to understand where their help is on any given snap, and protect away from their help with proper leverage to ensure a tightly contested throw.
Haden excels in these situations, as we will see on the rep below, a third down rep from early in a Week 10 contest against the Cincinnati Bengals, in which Haden aligns to the boundary, in a man coverage assignment with shallow inside help from Terrell Edmunds on third and long. Identifying the receiver aligning inside of the numbers in a cut split, Haden can gauge that Auden Tate is either running a dig directly into his help, or an outbreaking route to attack the sticks, most likely a deep out or a comeback. Accordingly, Haden aligns with heavy outside leverage at the sticks, weaving to maintain his proper leverage before breaking efficiently and breaking up the pass to force a punt. As Haden shows here, man coverage can become much easier if a defensive back can trust their help, and posture themselves opposite their help, and eliminate the potential route tree which they could face.
As Haden never possessed top tier long speed for the position, his ability to be patient and aggressive on underneath and intermediate routes has always been dependent on his ability to play off of his vertical help. Particularly in Pittsburgh, with his long speed facing further deterioration, Haden has succeeded through his ability to funnel receivers toward his vertical help, allowing himself to avoid being stacked downfield when playing patiently and protecting the sticks.
On the rep below, with the Steelers aligned in a Cover 1 blitz, Haden aligns in off coverage to the boundary against Tyler Boyd before weaving to outside leverage at the snap. While he bites on Boyd’s stutter and go, Haden forces Boyd inside, maintaining his leverage, and allowing himself to locate the football, close, and arrive at the catch point to contest the deep pass understanding that his deep help, Minkah Fitzpatrick, will close on the ball from the inside affecting the throw.
Thus, while Haden took a calculated risk while protecting the sticks, by maintaining proper leverage, he is still able to force a difficult throw that will be contested by his post safety, even if the ball had been thrown more accurately by Ryan Finley. While it may appear at times that Haden has allowed vertical separation, he is extremely adept at tracking the football downfield from out of phase, and rarely does so without proper understanding of his help defenders.
Effectively communicating switches from both man and zone coverage
Before the arrival of Joe Haden and Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Steelers secondary, most often at the hands of the New England Patriots, would be exposed for their lack of effectively communicating switch routes, both in man and zone coverage assignments. Thus, while Haden makes plays on the football as frequently as anyone in the secondary, his true value lies in his ability to effectively communicate switches and put his teammates in position to effectively contest designed pick and switches.
Below against the Browns in a third and short situation, Haden diagnoses Jarvis Landry motioning across the formation, picking up a rollout formational tendency, and instantly communicating a switch to Cam Sutton against the levels concept. At the snap, Haden weaves outside before closing on to the flat and breaking up the pass to force a fourth down attempt, which the Browns would ultimately fail to convert.
Had the switch not been communicated, Cam Sutton would have found himself out-leveraged and unable to close to the flat on the designed pick route, showcasing Haden’s ability not only to diagnose the play design, but to communicate it quickly and efficiently to make the play and avoid a coverage breakdown.
As I mentioned above, many of Haden’s effective communications do not result in himself making a play on the football, but rather setting up his teammates to contest a switch route. Below in Week 12 against the Ravens, Haden aligns as the field corner to a trips set with the Steelers in a Cover 2 man scheme.
At the snap, Haden, alleged in a squat technique to keep vision on route distribution, picks up a wheel route intended to conflict Robert Spillane, providing an “in” call for Spillane to pick up the slant route. Spillane immediately flips his hips, closes on the route, and arrives at the catch point to make the tackle without allowing any yards after the catch.
Had the switch not been communicated, Spillane was caught in a mismatch downfield, with the Ravens likely to gain significant yardage downfield. Thus, Haden’s switch both effectively shuts down the vertical target while keeping Spillane in phase to tackle the slant for minimal yardage and force a long third down attempt.
Maintaining proper leverage when taking on blockers and tackling in open space
As our own Alex Kozora has noted frequently, Haden’s most underrated aspect since joining Pittsburgh has been his willing and effective run defense, both when able to make the tackle and when he is forced to serve as the “spill” player, taking on a lead blocker and forcing runners to bounce wide to the cavalry. Below against the Giants in Week 1, a game in which the Steelers defense held Saquon Barkley to just six rushing yards, Haden shows his fearless demeanor when defending the run.
At the snap, Haden, aligned as the overhang defender to a tight set on the boundary, diagnoses run and immediately fills downhill, shooting low to cut the pulling guard with a physical blow and forcing Saquon to bounce the run wide, where he ultimately runs out of room along the sideline.
While it may appear subtle, had Haden allowed himself to get washed down by the pulling guard here, Saquon could have had the opportunity to make a jump cut and gain downfield momentum before the help arrived from the inside. Little plays like this helped the Steelers foster the league’s premier run defense early in the 2020 season, although it admittedly faltered down the stretch.
The next rep from later in the game, Haden once again takes on a pulling tight end, this time showing physicality to knock the lead blocker to the ground, once again forcing Saquon to bounce the run toward the sideline for a minimal gain.
Note how Haden converts speed to power at the point of contact, sacrificing his body while maintaining proper outside leverage, and leaving Alex Highsmith with a clear path to track down Saquon as he scampers toward the sideline. Needless to say, there are few boundary cornerbacks across the league willing to sacrifice their body in the run game, speaking to Haden’s commitment to all facets of the game.
Thus, while Haden enters this season at age 32, and conventional wisdom states that a sharp decline is coming at some point, I’d bet against it in 2021 due to his savvy veteran play and understanding of his own skillset. Ultimately, he has adapted his play style to maximize his ability to contribute with his current skill set, and the Steelers defensive scheme under Keith Butler and Mike Tomlin is tailor made for his adapted play style.