The Cleveland Browns drafted Joe Haden with the 7th overall pick in 2010. The previous two players the Browns used a first round pick on were Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, three great selections in a sea of draft failure. In Joe Haden’s rookie season the Browns finished 3rd in the AFC North, they would finish 4th the next 6 years in a row and the Browns parted with Joe Haden before the 2017 season, leading to him becoming a Steeler.
The Cincinnati Bengals selected Joe Burrow with the first pick in the 2020 draft, a position that carries with it the weight of turning around a franchise’s direction. That is never an easy task, but it is even harder in the AFC North when you have to deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, two of the better run organizations in the NFL, something Joe Haden was on the wrong side of for 7 seasons in Cleveland. In 2020 he got the opportunity to teach the promising Bengals rookie just what life in the AFC North is like when your team is based in Ohio.
1st quarter, 10:36. Joe Haden is the cornerback to the top of the screen, off the line of scrimmage.
Joe Burrow has AJ Green open deep. Minkah Fitzpatrick comes up to help Cameron Sutton on his route and Green gets behind Fitzpatrick with Joe Haden trailing him. Burrow makes the right read here, but Joe Haden shows him just how small the passing windows are in the NFL. Burrow leads Green deeper instead of away from Haden, but without putting the ball high in the air and Haden steps in front of Green to break it up.
You can see it well in this angle.
That pass needs to keep Green running away from Haden or have enough arc to take it over Haden’s reach. You can’t get away with that against the better NFL corners.
1st quarter, 7:31. Joe Haden is the cornerback to the top of the screen.
It’s third down and the Bengals run a route to the sticks against Joe Haden. It doesn’t work.
Watch Haden’s footwork on this play.
Haden knows a route to the sticks is likely here, but he doesn’t over commit to it in case it’s a fake. Instead, as Auden Tate starts to turn Haden’s steps become incredibly fast, setting him up to react faster, and when Tate turns his body, committing to heading outside Haden’s hips flip with him and he breaks on the play. Haden gets a hand on Tate’s arm as the ball arrives and pushes that arm, ensuring an incomplete pass and a punt.
Joe Haden was never the fastest cornerback in the NFL, and he’s lost a step in his 11 seasons, but that footwork is elite, and it allows him to continue to play at an incredibly high level.
2nd quarter, 10:47 Joe Haden is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.
Joe Haden has help to the inside, so he uses hard outside leverage here, funneling A.J. Green toward Minkah Fitzpatrick, knowing it is unlikely even a rookie would try throwing a pass in the end zone near Fitzpatrick. The great job by Haden is his hard commitment to taking away the back of the end zone, forcing Green to circle around him with a more shallow route, taking away any back corner throws and drastically shrinking the window to get the ball past Fitzpatrick to A.J. Green.
Little things like that won’t get you on highlight reels, because they just force the quarterback to throw the ball away, but it’s the same result as a great pass breakup at the back corner of the end zone would be.
2nd quarter, 6:47. Joe Haden is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.
In the first quarter they got A.J. Green behind Minkah Fitzpatrick but Haden broke up the pass. Here in the second quarter the Bengals face cover-1 again, and this time they throw underneath of Fitzpatrick, and as good as Fitzpatrick is, he can’t cover 8 yards that fast. Notice the outside leverage Haden has here. The Steelers know Haden isn’t someone you want in a foot race with Tee Higgins, so they set up Haden with a head start on anything outside and deep, and have help to anything inside and deep in Minkah Fitzpatrick.
That leaves these routes behind the linebackers and in front of Fitzpatrick open. Haden can get there in time to deny yards after the catch, but from his initial alignment he’s surrendering the catch on routes like this. Both Joe Haden and Cameron Sutton gave up catches like this, because the defense is designed to allow them while gambling on the rush disrupting the play enough to make it worth it. Those gambles paid off a lot, it was a good strategy, but it also creates a good number of plays like this.
2nd quarter, 0:12. Joe Haden is the deep defender to the bottom of the screen.
One of Joe Haden’s strengths is his deep zone coverage in cover-3 or cover-4. The Bengals attack this obvious cover 4 by overloading the field away from Haden. You can see Haden follow the post route from the receiver on his side, and he ends up helping with the deep receiver, freeing up the safety if the play had still been going on. This is another aspect of his game that rarely shows up in highlights, but helps the Steelers defense in obvious deep passing situations like the end of a half. The Steelers are the best defense in the NFL on those drives with 3 touchdowns allowed and 12 turnovers forced. on drives that start within the last 3 minutes in the 2nd or 4th quarters the last two seasons.
3rd quarter, 14:23. Joe Haden is the cornerback to the top of the screen.
This play shows exactly why Haden isn’t the guy you want running a foot race against Tee Higgins. Higgins shows off his route running talent on this play, and the minute he and Haden turn to run outside and deep it is over, Higgins is gone. The Bengals got Haden to commit a bit too much to the slant and Haden takes the loss on this route. Fortunately for the Steelers it is also an example of Joe Burrows’ struggle to complete deep passes in his rookie season.
3rd quarter, 1418, Joe Haden is the cornerback to the top of the screen
With Joe Haden just having been beat deep and playing off, the Bengals go for a quick hitter to take advantage of Joe Haden focusing on deeper routes. Again Haden’s technique pays off, and the Bengals gain 3 yards on the play. Haden is a very good tackler for a cornerback, and he reliably brings down his man even on aggressive tackles like this one.
3rd quarter, 13:37. Joe Haden is the cornerback to the top of the screen.
Is anything more Bengals than going after the same player three straight plays and getting three yards out of it?
Joe Haden isn’t a player you ever want to target like that. Again, check the footwork and technique.
Haden accelerates and stops with Auden Tate, perfectly meeting him at his stop, and for the second time in the game, pulls Tate’s arm off the ball for another incompletion.
One of my favorite parts of making this film room was during this replay, when the TV announcer commented “Joe Burrow needs to realize who he is targeting on these throws.” Joe Haden isn’t a guy you go after like this.
The Bengals targeted Joe Haden 9 times in week 10. They completed 4 of those targets for 45 yards. Five yards per target is a terrible number.
3rd quarter, 1:35. Joe Haden is the cornerback to the top of the screen, well off the line of scrimmage.
I couldn’t go through a Joe Haden film room without showing him in run support. Joe Haden was playing in his 11th NFL season in 2020, and he still throws himself into run defense with as much aggressiveness as he always has. This time he takes on the Bengals right tackle, taking him out of the play which leaves Vince Williams free to make the tackle.
Joe Haden is still a very valuable cornerback, and his value is substantially increased by having athletic safeties behind him that can help cover his lack of straight line speed. But even without help, his footwork, intelligence and overall excellent technique make him still one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL.