The biggest addition to the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers by far is cornerback Joe Haden. Not only does Haden provide veteran leadership in a young cornerback room, he displays quality play each and every week. Since Haden's arrival in the Steel City, the Steelers' once horrific secondary has done an adequate job.
Last season the starting cornerback alongside Artie Burns was Ross Cockrell. Now playing football with the New York Giants after a trade during the offseason, Steelers fans are quite happy that opposing teams don't have to pick on him anymore.
With Haden coming over from the Cleveland Browns, many thought that his playing days were over after missing 14 games over the last two seasons. That is far from the truth early on this year after managing to stay healthy for all eight regular season games thus far. This season, he has complied quite the statistics for what many called a "terrible acquisition" for a "washed up" athlete - 16 total tackles, one sack, five pass deflections and an interception against the Cincinnati Bengals in week 7.
In that same game, Haden was a thorn in Andy Dalton's side more on more than one occasion. On a 2nd-and-4 from the Bengals own 44-yard line, Dalton attempts a deep pass to wide receiver Cody Core. As you'll notice often this season, Haden plays much closer to the line of scrimmage than Steelers corners have in recent years; even Artie Burns (bottom left) who is about ten yards off of his opponent on this play.
This play is Joe Haden's the entire way, as he works Core to the outside for an incomplete pass. Make no mistake about it, Core comes down with the ball (despite Haden getting his hands on it) but if it wasn't for Haden's fundamentals in working the receiver toward the boundary, a lesser capable defensive back would've been burned for a 30-plus yard reception.
It would've been nice to pick apart some plays from earlier games, but not hearing Joe Haden's name has been what has made him a solid, but silent addition to the Steelers defense. When you don't hear a defensive back's name, it means receivers aren't able to break their coverage, and that quarterbacks (mostly) aren't throwing in their direction.
That was the case against the Kansas City Chiefs a few weeks ago, but Haden has also come up clutch as the season has carried on. One thing apparent by an "eyeball test" is that the Steelers defense is getting pressure. That pressure is aided by better coverage in the secondary, while on the other side of the sword, the secondary has been just as sharp, aided by the front seven's ability to get to the quarterback.
In the above clip, Lions QB Matthew Stafford cannot find an open receiver. More mobile than some other passers, Stafford rolls out to his right searching for an open player. In prior seasons, the Steelers defense might break down and allow an opponent to wriggle free downfield.
This year, Haden has helped lock down the defensive backfield, staying with his man the entire play, even if he is playing far off of the ball and not near the line of scrimmage. If you'd like to see Haden "man up" here's a perfect example, on 3rd-and-10 before halftime against the Lions.
When I talked about quarterbacks testing Joe Haden earlier, this was clearly a test. I'm not sure what the Lions saw on this play call, but instead of looking for a receiver being covered by a linebacker (Bud Dupree) or a safety on a receiver (Artie Burns blitzes; bottom of the screen) Stafford attempts to go over the top of Joe Haden.
Haden backs up, gets out of his backpedal, and makes a tremendous play on the ball. The result: fourth down.
I believe that Haden's arrival solidified what was Pittsburgh's Achilles' Heal for the longest time being that of the secondary. It's also nice to add that this defensive secondary is ranked second in the National Football League (before the bye week) in passing yards allowed per game (180.0). The only team that has a better secondary is the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are allowing 161.7 yards in the air per game. Say what you want to say about this 28-year-old corner, but if you take a look at what this team is doing especially on defense, you shouldn't be complaining anymore.