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How did the Steelers utilize Joe Haden in his limited snaps against the Titans?

Returning after missing more than four games, Haden made big plays in big moments when he was on the field.

Tennessee Titans v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers needed a strong defensive performance in order to defeat the Tennessee Titans. After missing the last four games, cornerback Joe Haden returned to the lineup in limited action and made his mark on the game. Exactly what did Haden bring to the defense, and how was he utilized? That is the subject for this week’s Steelers Vertex.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

There was not a lot of statistics from Joe Haden in his first game back since he left in the first quarter of Week 10. Playing only 27 of the Steelers defensive of snaps, he was only on the field for a third of the time. Instead, Ahkello Witherspoon played 56 snaps where he had two tackles and was credited for giving up one pass on three targets for nine yards according to Pro Football Focus.

Regardless, the impact of Joe Haden came through. Haden was credited with a fumble recovery on a play where he snagged the ball out of the air when it was stripped out of the receivers hands by Cam Sutton. Even if it would have been called an incomplete pass, by grabbing the ball before it hit the ground Haden took any doubt out of the equation.

Joe Haden also added two tackles in Week 15. The most notable tackle was on the final defensive play the game where he held the Titans receiver short of the line to gain on fourth down. It was a textbook tackle were Haden drove through the ball and didn’t allow it to move forward once he made contact.

According to the advanced statistics provided by Pro Football Focus, Haden was targeted on two passes and gave up one reception for 6 yards. That single reception was on the final play mentioned above.

So what else did Joe Haden bring to the Steelers defense in his return? For that, we will have to check the film.

The Film Line:

To start the Steelers Week 15 matchup against the Tennessee Titans, it was Joe Haden and Cameron Sutton as the two outside corners.

Steelers v Titans, 1st quarter, 12:39.

Joe Haden is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.

Joe Haden showed early on that he was back and ready to defend the run at the same high level he always has. Joe Haden is not going to shy away from the physicality of the game, and his run defense has always been a strength.

Joe Haden played most of the early portion of the game, he was subbed out for a good chunk of the third drive, as he was on a planned snap count, and until the next clip, had not been targeted.

Steelers v Titans, 2nd quarter, 10:30.

Joe Haden is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

The first time the Titans went after Joe Haden they went after him in a big way. Joe Haden has never been the fastest cornerback, but he rarely gets beat deep like this. Haden’s struggle to accelerate as the receiver passed him stood out, as did Joe Haden’s absence from the field following the play after this one.

Haden would leave the field, and not return in his usual starting role. Instead, Akhello Witherspoon would take over Joe Haden’s spot, and not just for part of a series, for the rest of the game.

Steelers v Titans, 2nd quarter, 8:16.

Akhello Witherspoon is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

Akhello Witherspoon is not going to get beat deep, but he also isn’t going to give you the physicality or run defense that Joe Haden brings. In several situations, when the Titans were lined up in a run-heavy formation the Steelers swapped Terrell Edmunds and Akhello Witherspoon, putting Edmunds in position to focus on outside run defense while Witherspoon could play deep and not have to worry about taking on blockers or delivering big hits.

On this play, Witherspoon doesn’t deliver a hit, or even prevent much of an obstacle to the back.

Steelers v Titans, 2nd quarter, 4:02.

Akhello Witherspoon is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

Witherspoon is willing to involve himself in the run defense, but he’s no Joe Haden. A softer run defense hurt the Steelers defense and led to longer drives for the Titans.

Steelers v Titans, 2nd quarter, 1:18.

Akhello Witherspoon is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

The Steelers defense survived with their redzone defense when they could load the box and count on the defensive backs to cover 1v1 with the threat of a deep ball largely erased by the end line of the field. It stood out to me that Joe Haden didn’t return to the field in the red zone, but as he showed on this play, Witherspoon was up to the task of being on an island in the red zone.

But while Joe Haden did not return in his normal role, he did return to the field.

Steelers v Titans, 3rd quarter, 0:57.

Joe Haden is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.

This play goes away from Haden, and he passes off the underneath route. Cameron Sutton does a great job picking that route up and making the tackle that led to this fumble and heads-up recovery for Joe Haden.

The Steelers are in dime here, Haden came back in to his normal spot, while Witherspoon swapped to the other side and Cameron Sutton and Tre Norwood played inside. This is the role Joe Haden took over when he didn’t return to his normal spot when the Steelers went with a 7-man front.

Steelers v Titans, 4th quarter, 0:46.

Joe Haden is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

The Titans run a nice route combo here, running Haden off his man with the slot receivers route. It works too. Haden drops and has to get around Tre Norwood to get to his man. The problem for the Titans is Joe Haden’s awareness, intelligence and experience. He’s seen this before, and he is expecting this type of play. Haden is moving inside faster than his receiver so he can get inside of the slot receiver’s route and not get picked by Tre Norwood, who is only worried about his man. It works, and Haden not only gets clear of the pick route, he explodes into the receiver and further he gets his arm on top of the ball, preventing the receiver from reaching the ball out to convert the first down. Even an incredibly favorable spot wasn’t enough to give the Titans a first down and the Steelers won.

Joe Haden was essentially benched in this game, although I imagine it was more a conversation and mutual decision than Tomlin benching Haden, and yet he found a way to make a huge impact, getting in on 2 of the Steelers 5 turnovers (turnover on downs is a turnover and should be treated as such), with the second a fantastic tackle to end the game.

The Point:

Weighing Joe Haden’s run defense, tackling and playmaking ability against his current physical limitations will be a big part of the Steelers game planning going forward. With Akhello Witherspoon and Cameron Sutton both playing well, the Steelers have options and don’t need to force Haden back into a full-time role. Finding ways to get Haden on the field without exposing him is critical though, because of what he still brings to the team when he is physically able to do the job.

With the Chiefs and their speed at receiver coming up next week, how the Steelers utilize Joe Haden could very well be the difference between a win or loss.