“I don’t think any corner is playing better. At least none that we have faced.” — Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin on Joe Haden.
A silhouette of Hawaii hangs in Joe Haden’s locker. It is there to remind the fourth-year defensive back of one of his goals which is to be a Pro Bowl player. He’s been close in years past, but this season Haden is a strong candidate to make it there.
Haden’s two interceptions against Andy Dalton and the Cincinnat Bengals may have only been his second and third ones of the year, but that certainly isn’t the only stat worth considering as a measure of Haden’s outstanding play this season. Haden has played 718 defensive snaps this season. Only three other corners in the league have played more, and those players are on some pretty awful defenses that are on the field a lot. Despite playing all of those snaps, Haden is giving up less than 10 yards per reception and opposing quarterbacks throwing in his direction have a QB rating of 56.8.
Haden has simply taken his game to another level this season. A Pro Bowl level.
“If it happens it happens. I would love for it to happen, but I want us to win some games and if happens along the way then it happens,” Haden said Wednesday of his chance of making the Pro Bowl. “But right now I’m trying to beat the Steelers. I want our team, I want everybody to go. I want to keep winning games. Talking about that, it’s over with. I don’t really want to talk about it anymore. It’s a goal, but I’m going to keep coming out every week and trying to put my best foot forward and be the best corner I can be.”
Each week Haden faces the best receiver the other team has. He has held some of the best in the league to paltry numbers, including Mike Wallace, Calvin Johnson and A.J. Green twice. Haden has matched up against a Pro Bowl receiver six times – who have combined for nine Pro Bowl appearances – and has limited them to a combined total of 17 receptions, 147 yards and zero touchdowns. In total, the opposing team’s top receivers have combined for 36 receptions for 372 yards and one touchdown against him.
This week, it is Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown who leads the league in receptions with 74 for 952 yards and a five touchdowns. Brown is a different kind of wide out than Johnson or Green; he is a smaller guy that relies on his speed, quick cuts and precise routes to make plays. But what really makes Brown a dangerous receiver is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, a quarterback who has a knack for extending plays. He isn’t the fastest quarterback in the league, but he is one of the hardest to bring down, and his unique athleticism makes it harder on defensive backs.
“He [Rothlisberger] makes it a whole lot harder because you think you’ve got the first route covered and then it’s just a completely different scramble, and when they’re scrambling that’s not a route,” said Haden. “You’re just kinda running around, following and chasing people around, so he makes it difficult.”
Roethlisberger has a pretty good track record of making life difficult for the Browns and their fans. Like Joe Flacco and the Ravens, Big Ben and the Steelers have pretty much had their way with the Browns, which gets a little old after a while.
“It gets old losing to anybody. It gets old losing period,” Haden said. “It really doesn’t matter who we play. We have to go out there and win. Everybody has to step up and do their job. We got the players, but we have to be able to make plays. We have to make plays. The face of the other team doesn’t matter. Anytime you line up and it’s a game, I just feel like no matter who you play, no matter when you play them it’s a game that you need to win.”
If it seems that Haden has a more mature attitude this season, you would be correct. The coaches see it. The media sees it. His teammates see it. He is a more mature, confident player that no longer feels the need to be the loudest one in the room - or the flashiest. But it’s more than just knowing when to speak up and when not to, it’s a lifestyle change.
“The way I’m living,” said Haden. “Me and my wife have a really good relationship. We’re doing super well, just relaxing all the time. I’ve been studying the Bible a whole lot more, and I’m just really comfortable with myself and comfortable with how my life’s going. Honestly that’s it. I’m cooling. It’s just football. It’s all football.”
It’s more than just his new marriage however. Haden admits that the suspension he served last season played a big part in his personal and professional growth.
“When I got suspended, that really slowed me down, made me really settle down and become a better professional,” Haden admitted. “You always get hit with curve balls, I believe everything happens for a reason. I think the whole suspension thing got me to where I’m at now, so it all worked out.”
Haden’s three years experience in the league also plays a big part.
“I know more, I’m more confident,” he said. “It’s finally really starting to click. When people say you’re starting to get more comfortable, and it starts to slow down, it really does start to slow down. It doesn’t feel like a game like you’re nervous, it feels like you’re at practice and you’ve seen it before. You’re just out there doing one on ones- quarterback, center, you and the receiver. Once you start feeling that comfortable, it’s a whole lot easier.”
Whatever the reason for his growth and improved play, Joe Haden should be on his way to Hawaii at the end of the season.
(Photo: Rick Grayshock/WFNY)