Since one of the most pressing issues facing the Steelers this offseason is how to handle the contracts of a number of players with large salary cap hits, we’re going to take this opportunity to break down the player statistics, salary cap implications, and play on the field to help determine what would be in the Steelers’ best interest. This will be the focus on our Steelers Vertex series over the next several weeks.
Starting off with the obvious choice of Ben Roethlisberger followed by Maurkice Pouncey, we left it up to YOU, the readers, to determine which player we will look at next. Next up is Joe Haden as the top choice in the voter poll. For now, the choices will be players under contract for the 2021 season but the Steelers will need to consider if they are going to retain, extend, or release.
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.
As stated above, the topic at hand this week is looking at Joe Haden and making a case for what the Steelers should do in regards to his contract in 2021. Should they have him play out the rest of his contract, work a contract extension, or release him?
Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.
The Stats Line:
When it comes to the statistics Joe Haden has put up in his four years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, it’s simple to say he’s been the best cornerback the team has seen in sometime. With 56 regular season starts, Haden has 10 interceptionsin his four years in Pittsburgh to go along with 48 passes defensed. Coming off a Pro Bowl season in 2019 where Haden had five interceptions and a fumble recovery, he followed it up with two interceptions, one of which was returned for his first touchdown wearing the black and gold. It should also be noted that Haden is one of only seven players in the NFL with more than 40 passes defensed over the last three seasons.
The biggest concern with Haden comes down to two numbers. First, the number 32 is important is that is how old Joe Haden will be going into the 2021 NFL season. With 11 NFL season under his belt, there is some speculation as to how much longer Haden can continue to perform at the NFL level.
The other concerning number when it comes to Haden is $15.575 million which is his salary cap hit for the 2021 NFL season. Unfortunately, Haden has the Steelers’ second-highest cap number for this coming season only behind Ben Roethlisberger‘s $41.25 million. With $8.575 million in dead money, Haden has $7 million in salary coming his way this season. If the Steelers decided to move on from Haden this year, it would only be a $7 million savings. Should the Steelers want to extend Haden‘s contract, it’s very tricky with a 32-year-old cornerback.
Joe Haden has a lot of high numbers: High quality statistics, high salary, and a high age. What’s really going to be the deciding factor is Haden‘s performance on a play-by-play basis. For this, Geoffrey is ready to tackle the question…
The Film Line:
Joe Haden posted a very solid 75.9 passer rating against in 2020, which was up from his stellar 2019 season, but still very good. He isn’t in his prime anymore, and on film that shows up in the few times he is asked to play on an island. Joe Haden is still a great cornerback in pattern-match defenses and zones where he doesn’t have to worry about staying with a number one receiver no matter where they run.
He shines when the Steelers weaponize his experience and elite play recognition skills to attack underneath routes.
Week 6, 4th quarter, 2:00. Joe Haden is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.
The Browns go after Mike Hilton here. Hilton is showing inside leverage, like he is faking a blitz, and the Browns counter that with a quick out route, either exploiting what would be a hot route that Terrell Edmunds had to pick up from deep if Hilton blitzed, or just attacking the leverage that puts Hilton out of position to cover a quick out.
That’s just bait, bait that Baker Mayfield bites on and Joe Haden breaks up the pass to deny his former team a third down conversion.
Week 12, 1st quarter, 7:04. Joe Haden is the cornerback to the top of the screen.
It’s not always designed trickery though, it’s written into many of the Steelers defensive sets. Here the Ravens have Devin Duvernay being covered by Avery Williamson. Robert Griffin III Sees the mismatch and goes for the easy yards. Joe Haden takes it to the house to give the Steelers 6 points in an eventual 19-14 Steelers win.
Notice how Terrell Edmunds moves here. He doesn’t know he’s responsible for the deep route until Haden is jumping the route. Edmunds does a lot of work on that side of the field, as he covers for Mike Hilton’s blitzes and for Joe Haden jumping underneath routes.
In the last two seasons with Edmunds taking on this role, Joe Haden has 29 passes defended and 7 interceptions in 30 games. In the 4 years before that Haden had 32 passes defended and 6 interceptions. You have to go back to Haden’s Pro Bowl years in Cleveland when he was 24 and 25 to get better stats.
The last two seasons, with Terryl Austin on the staff, we’ve seen great improvement in the Steelers playing defensive backs in ways that maximize their strengths. As a result the Steelers are getting impact plays from Joe Haden, and he remains a valuable piece.
But the Steelers aren’t just using Terrell Edmunds to keep Haden off that island and letting him attack underneath routes. Look at Mike Hilton and Avery Williamson in those clips above, they were beat. Joe Haden attacking those underneath routes helps cover for inside linebackers like Williamson, Robert Spillane and Vince Willams. All you have to do is look at the games Joe Haden missed to find evidence of his value.
Wild Card Game, 4th quarter, 14:24. Cameron Sutton is the cornerback to the top of the screen.
With no Joe Haden, the Steelers moved Minkah Fitzpatrick to that side of the field, and the Browns still had success attacking the Steelers linebackers on short out routes, and moving Minkah Fitzpatrick to try and cover that weakness opened up other cracks as well.
In that playoff game Robert Spillane, Vince Williams and Mike Hilton combined to give up 180 of Baker Mayfield’s 263 passing yards. The Browns saw the weaknesses were there in Week 17 when Haden was out, and saw the Steelers scheme band-aids. The next week with Haden still out they attacked them relentlessly, especially late in the game after the Steelers pulled within two scores of tying the game.
Joe Haden’s attacking mentality, combined with his still very solid tackling, also makes him a great defender against running back routes in the flat and against the run.
Week 7, 4th quarter, 2:00. Joe Haden is the cornerback to the top of the screen.
That’s Derrick Henry losing yards on that route to the flat. Joe Haden is 31 years old and has zero hesitation laying a hit on the NFL’s biggest running back. You can see how fluidly Haden, Vince Williams and Terrell Edmunds switch assignments, Williams picks up the outside receiver and Terrell Edmunds resets his body to break on anything going outside and deep as Joe Haden picks up the flat. Those three defended that right side a lot in 2020, and while all three get criticism, they were consistently hard to attack when they were all healthy.
Week 12, 2nd quarter, 11:50. Joe Haden is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.
Haden makes the tackle for a loss on this play, but what is really impressive is the respect the Ravens show for Haden. The tight end is prepared to block T.J. Watt, but when Watt cuts inside he bypasses Vince Williams to try and block Joe Haden. Haden evades the block and makes the play.
I want to include a play that shows Haden’s diminished athleticism and how it can affect his coverage when he is on an island, or facing a top receiver.
Week 6, 2nd quarter, 2:40. Joe Haden is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen, defending Odell Beckham Jr.
Haden bites on Beckham’s stutter step and you can see the acceleration isn’t there to recover. Haden got flagged for that arm he threw out to slow Beckham down, it looks super picky if you watched the Steelers receivers and the physicality they dealt with all season, but it’s a flag nonetheless. You can also see Haden get back, re-locate the ball in the air and make an interception on the underthrown ball. If the flag isn’t thrown there, it’s a great play by Haden. But it still shows how he is a bit slower recovering as an older player.
Joe Haden isn’t the athlete he was in his youth, but he’s still a really good cornerback when you tailor your scheme to his strengths and to cover his weaknesses. Terrell Edmunds and Haden were even better in 2020 than they were together in 2019, and the results when Haden wasn’t on the field should be plenty to convince Steelers’ fans that Haden is worth the 7 million keeping him on the team will cost in 2021.
As for giving Haden an extension to spread out his cap hit for 2021, it would be a gamble knowing that his best years are likely behind him. The last thing the Steelers want to do is pay top dollar for more years if father time shows up in a big way. This might be one of those cases where the Steelers just eat the big salary cap hit and have Haden play out his final year unless he’s willing to take a much lower base salary on any additional years.
Which player would you like to see broken down for next weeks Steelers Vertex? Make sure you vote in the pole below.
Which player under contract for the 2021 season would you like to see broken down for next weeks Steelers Vertex?
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Past Vertex breakdowns: