The main narrative surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers and free agency has always been the same — they simply don’t go out and get the big-name free agents.
Everyone should know why. They typically cost too much, and only a handful of players are actually worth the price tag they require. Nonetheless, the Steelers made a big move prior to the start of the 2017 regular season, and I’m willing to say it has transformed their entire defense.
The acquisition I am talking about is the team picking up Joe Haden after the Cleveland Browns released him when he wouldn’t take a pay cut.
Throwing finances out the window, I had to think about where this Steelers’ secondary, currently ranked 1st in the NFL, would be without Haden.
If Haden had never been acquired, the Steelers would likely be looking at a couple options at the starting outside cornerback position opposite Artie Burns. If you recall, the team was having a “two dogs, one bone” competition between Ross Cockrell and Coty Sensabaugh at the end of the preseason, and the Steelers would likely have had to go with one of those players had Haden not been picked up as a free agent.
Would Cockrell or Sensabaugh be able to do what Haden has done with his experience, leadership and communication in the back end? Some might argue yes, but I will certainly sway towards the other side of the fence.
Haden has been a steadying force for the team’s pass defense, and although their success is tied to the success of the pass rush, you can’t dismiss what he brings to the team — a legitimate starting cornerback with experience.
When the Steelers acquired Haden, there was a ripple effect with how this impacted the defense from a depth chart standpoint. William Gay could still be the team’s slot cornerback, but who knows if the team would have felt the need to move him outside if they didn’t like Cockrell or Sensabaugh playing there. Mike Hilton would have still likely made the team, but what capacity would he be utilized is anyone’s guess. You may disagree, but I feel every transaction makes an impact on multiple levels.
Looking at the team’s cornerbacks now, it is so different compared to just 6 weeks ago as the team prepared for the Cleveland Browns in Week 1.
Ross Cockrell was traded to thew New York Giants, where he is seeing very little playing time, Coty Sensabaugh is a special teams player, and Mike Hilton has ascended to the team’s No. 3 cornerback. All because Joe Haden was acquired when the Browns decided to part ways with their Pro Bowl cornerback.
Depth charts and rosters aside, Haden also allows Keith Butler to make different calls with the team’s secondary, knowing he has a trustworthy cornerback on both sides of the football. The Steelers are still a predominant zone defense team, but they can certainly run more man-to-man with Haden, compared to if Cockrell or Sensabaugh were being utilized. Haden opens up the playbook even more just by stepping on the field in his No. 21 jersey.
I would go as far as saying Haden was one of the best free agent pick ups the Steelers have made in the past decade, and although his stats aren’t mind-blowing, he is one of the main reasons why the team’s pass defense has gone from a liability to a strength.