PITTSBURGH (AP) The end came quickly in Cleveland for Joe Haden, a stark reminder that the NFL is a business. The Browns were rebuilding again in the summer of 2017, and having a cornerback in his late 20s making eight figures didn’t exactly fit the plan, fiscally or otherwise.
For the first time in his football life, Haden felt adrift.
The two-time Pro Bowler understood his final two seasons in Cleveland were marred by injury and inconsistent play.
Still, getting cut loose – even a split as amicable as the one between Haden and the Browns – thrust his long-range plans into serious jeopardy.
”When I first got in the league I was thinking I’d play 15 years,” Haden said.
Less than halfway there, Haden was willing to settle for just one more to prove something to Cleveland and – if he’s being honest – himself too.
Funny how things work out. Fast forward 14 months and Haden finds himself the linchpin of Pittsburgh’s revamped secondary. The 29-year-old is in a sweet spot of sorts. The speed that helped make him the seventh overall pick in the 2010 draft is still there, joined by the smarts accumulated from nearly a decade shadowing the league’s best receivers.
”Joe’s athletic ability is still pretty sharp,” defensive backs coach Tom Bradley said. ”Mentally he gets better as time goes on. I think he understands what people are trying to get done.”
While the first-place Steelers (3-2-1) remain very much a work in progress heading into Sunday’s visit from the Browns (2-4-1) – particularly at the cornerback spot opposite Haden, where Artie Burns, Coty Sensabaugh and Cam Sutton remain in a rotation until one of them takes firm ownership of the position – Haden’s steadying presence has provided a much-needed lift.
Three weeks ago he kept Atlanta star wide receiver Julio Jones without a catch until the fourth quarter when the game was well in hand. Two weeks ago in Cincinnati, he held A.J. Green out of the end zone. Haden’s reward? A quick trip to Los Angeles during Pittsburgh’s bye to check in on buddy LeBron James.
Now a rematch with the Browns – who fought to an ugly 21-all tie with Pittsburgh in the season opener – awaits. It’s a game that doesn’t feel nearly as personal as it did last season, when Haden found himself lining up against his former teammates just days after Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert sprinted to sign him after being released by Cleveland.
While Haden was pretty sure he’d land a job after getting let go, he admits the fervency with which the Steelers went after him during their very brief courtship gave him a jolt of confidence.
”Coach Tomlin and Kev just really helped me out through the process of getting here, just showing me how much they wanted me, how much they loved me,” Haden said. ”They were like `Joe, listen, we need you here.”’
Perhaps even more than Tomlin and Colbert knew. The Steelers signed Haden to a three-year, $27 million contract last August and he spent much of last season trying to fit in for a team that raced to its second straight AFC North title. Then Pittsburgh cut veterans Mike Mitchell, William Gay and Robert Golden in March, leaving Haden as the elder statesman.
”He’s a guy that in the secondary, for us to be young, we can rely on and feel good with him out there,” said second-year nickel back Mike Hilton. ”He has become more vocal because he knows he’s the guy in the room.”
Haden developed a tightknit relationship with Burns – like Haden a former first-round pick – and his experience in Cleveland grounded him in a way. The Browns didn’t win much during Haden’s seven seasons in town. The atmosphere and the stakes are higher in Pittsburgh, where the losses are fewer but also more consequential. His message to the rest of the group that includes eight players with less than four years of NFL experience: relax.
”If we’re winning or if we’re losing, we still have the same amount of little corrections,” Haden said. ”It’s just that one spot where you have to make a play or they have to make a play. It’s never really that bad.”
A season ago he appeared to be at a crossroads. Now his teammates believe Haden is once again among the league’s elite. While Haden will leave that for others to decide, he’s still open to the idea that his best football remains in front of him as 30 approaches.
”You hear people say `Oh yeah, the game is slowing down,”’ Haden said. ”But I was like, `I don’t know.’ Now I finally feel like literally, I feel like the game is slowing down.”
Even as Haden insists that he’s not.
NOTES: Burnett (groin) and LB L.J. Fort (ankle) were full participants on Wednesday. … WR Darrius Heyward-Bey and TE Xavier Grimble (concussion) were limited. … RT Marcus Gilbert (knee) did not practice.
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