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What can Joe Haden still bring to the Steelers defense?

Is the former Pro Bowl cornerback worth a another contract to stay in Pittsburgh?

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

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a number of players who are set to hit free agency at the beginning of the league year in March. Before testing the waters, the Steelers have first crack at offering a deal if they so choose. So who should get a deal? Looking at the players one at a time and what they bring to the Steelers, up this week is cornerback Joe Haden.

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:

Joe Haden now has 12 years of experience in the National Football League. The seventh overall pick of the 2010 NFL draft, Haden spent his first seven years in Cleveland before coming to Pittsburgh in 2017. Since landing on the good side of the AFC North, Haden has 10 interceptions and 54 passes defensed in 68 games.

The 2021 season was very interesting for Joe Haden as he saw his first game action where he was not the starter since his rookie season. This was in Week 18 in Baltimore against the Ravens where Haden played 26 snaps but did not get the start. In all, Haden missed five complete games in the regular season and only played nine snaps in another which sent him out for the next four weeks.

The 2021 season was the first year Joe Haden did not record an interception since 2015 when he was limited to only five games with Cleveland and eventually went on the Reserve/Injured List. Haden did finish the season with 38 tackles, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, and six passes defensed. Haden‘s fumble recovery in Week 15 against the Tennessee Titans could have just as easily been an interception as the ball was popped out from the receiver and he caught it before it hit the ground. The official scorekeeper judged it as a completed catch and fumble which was the only thing keeping Haden off the interception board for 2021.

In looking at the advanced statistics provided by Pro Football Reference which go back through the 2018 season, Haden gave up the highest completion percentage of the last four seasons at 60.0% from 33 completions on 55 targets. According to PFR, Haden gave up three touchdowns on the season (the same number he did in 2020) and had eight missed tackles which equated a 17.4% missed tackle rate which was also his highest since they have been keeping the statistics.

So where does Joe Haden fit with the Steelers if he would return in 2022? Is he worthy of a contract anywhere close to the $9.8 million per season he has made on average in his five years in Pittsburgh? What role would Haden best fit for the Steelers? Let’s see if the film gives us any indication.

The Film Line:

Joe Haden has been a great cornerback for the Steelers since joining them in 2017, and in 2019 and 2020 had a bit of a renaissance under Teryl Austin with 7 interceptions in two years.

But at 32 years old, in 2021 Joe Haden showed some limitations, especially when faced with defending more athletic receivers.

Steelers v Bengals, 1st quarter, 5:20.

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

Ja’Marr Chase beats Haden on his release, and is wide open on this out route.

Steelers v Bengals, 3rd quarter, 6:27.

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

Haden is backing off to keep Chase in front of him, but he can’t stay with Chase on the cut or recover afterwards, and it’s an easy touchdown throw for Joe Burrow.

Now Ja’Marr Chase is an elite receiver, he torched a lot of corners, but it was clear from their first meeting that Joe Haden isn’t a corner that can defend a top tier receiver 1 vs. 1.

Steelers v Browns, 4th quarter, 1:52.

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

When facing less quick receivers, Joe Haden was more than up for the task. Haden’s numbers also improved as the season progressed, giving up only 37 yards on 13 targets from Week 6 to his injury in Week 10 facing the Detroit Lions.

Haden returned to the lineup in time to face the Titans, but was put in a limited role his first game back. Haden came in on nickel and dime package plays, playing his usual spot while Cameron Sutton played in the slot.

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

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

Haden seemed to be slowed by the injury still, and was lucky to have several balls fall incomplete in the game.

Despite his short-comings, Haden recorded his only turnover of the season, the fumble Dave mentioned above, against the Titans. He also made the play to end the Titans last drive and seal the win for the Steelers.

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

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

It doesn’t get much better than that. A text-book tackle to win the game in his return from injury.

Steelers v Ravens, 2nd quarter, 6:30.

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

Haden makes those kinds of tackles reliably for the Steelers. Here he’s in short zone, and quickly sees the play developing and accelerates to the ball, tackling Mark Andrews for no gain.

When Joe Haden left the field against Detroit the Steelers were 5-2 when he had played, and had lost in Week 2 when he was out. They would end up tying Detroit and then go 1-3 in the next 4 weeks with Haden out. In Haden’s return to the Steelers he made the play to seal the win, and the Steelers would finish the season going 3-1 with Haden playing.

While a lot has been made (especially by me) of the difference in the Steelers record with and without T.J. Watt in 2021, Joe Haden also stands out in that regard. The Steelers were 8-3 when Joe Haden was healthy, and when he left the game with injury or missed the game they were 1-4-1.

Steelers v Chiefs, 2nd quarter, 0:41.

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

But that doesn’t mean it was all good. Joe Haden isn’t covering Tyreek Hill on this route, it’s Byron Pringle. Pringle recorded 650 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2021, counting both the regular season and playoffs. The problem is 112 yards of those yards and 4 of his touchdowns came in the two games he played against the Steelers, where he was frequently matched up with Joe Haden 1 vs. 1 while the safety help was concerned with Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman, and Travis Kelce.

The Point:

Joe Haden is still a playmaker, and he’s still a player that can help the Steelers win football games. What Joe Haden isn’t anymore, is a cornerback that can cover faster receivers 1 vs. 1. If Joe Haden is brought back to the Steelers, he needs to be in a role that lets him be a playmaker, but doesn’t ask him to be in man coverage without help. DeShea Townsend was 33 years old when he was playing in the slot for the Steelers in 2008. In 2007 he was a starter that was struggling, in 2008 he moved into the slot and was a playmaker for the Steelers. I think Joe Haden could easily make that move in 2022 and carry a good amount of value for the Steelers. After all, he only played in sub-package situations in both the Tennessee and against Baltimore in Week 18, and he made an impact in both of those games. He just shouldn’t be an outside corner anymore.