The return of Joe Haden could not have come at a better time. The secondary was beginning to unravel, as the coaching staff tried to find a perfect balance of Coty Sensabaugh, Artie Burns and Cameron Sutton. All have their positives, all came with big weaknesses and question marks. The return of Haden put the shuffling to bed as Sensabaugh missed the game and despite rumors of a benching, Burns played the entire game across the veteran.
While the Steelers did not shake up the secondary in terms of benching their former first round pick, they did shake it up in terms of scheme.Without the proper confidence in Burns, the team did not want to see him lined up on DeAndre Hopkins, a receiver who wins so frequently with nuance. So, for the first time all season the Steelers switched their cornerbacks sides and allowed Haden to follow Hopkins around the field. In his first start in five weeks Haden took on the best receiver in the league not named Antonio Brown. How did he fare?
The very first aspect to talk about with Haden on Hopkins is that it was not a “Haden island” scenario. Putting a player on an island is singling him out and shifting safeties to the other side of the field to protect them. This is throwing everything you have at one player, unafraid of the other options.
So while Haden lined up almost exclusively on Hopkins, he was not following his every move. The Steelers switched up coverages a lot, and Haden had chances to play him off of the ball, knowing he had protection underneath, as well as up close to take away the underneath, knowing there is strong safety help over the top.
Still, there were instances where you could really tell that Haden was back. Take the play below for example. Yes, Mike Mitchell is dashing over the top forcing T.J. Yates to look away. Still, watch Haden. He flips his hips and boxes Hopkins out towards the corner. He sticks to him as he glides, flips again and stays in contact with him down the field. This is good old technician Haden.
Haden also showed some burst and understanding as he jumped a route designed for Hopkins. Watch him read the receiver, and make his move when Hopkins plants with his left leg.
Haden even followed Hopkins into the slot for a play which opens up a lot of new scheming advantages when it comes to game planning. Haden knows he has the safety watching Hopkins like a hawk over the deep middle. Still, in his role of pushing Hopkins that way and away from the sideline, Haden did excellent. Hopkins is not the fastest runner, but Haden, who has been knocked for his deep speed was able to keep up and make the play from an unusual spot in the slot.
Of course, even with three players on him, DeAndre Hopkins is going to get his. It is an Antonio Brown type of thing. Haden was on Hopkins for all six of his targets and gave up four receptions for 64 yards and a touchdown. It is the nature of the beast. As the game went along, the Texans began to find ways to get the ball into his hands. While Haden did show decent long speed from the slot, the one aspect of his game he does not have full faith in is his speed. He will typically cheat back more than forward. Below, Hopkins takes advantage and sells a deep route, getting Haden to flip his hips the wrong way and clear himself a boat load of space for a 13 yard gain.
The off coverage was recognized again as Haden is starting to move back as the ball is snapped. The Texans run a quick screen out to Hopkins, to get him the ball in space. It is a nice job of Braxton Miller being able to clear Haden out from the slot, but Haden needs to recognize this sooner. He also needs to take a better angle. He made that entirely too easy on Miller.
Taking on the wrong angles in tackling occurred again for Haden and it burnt the Steelers early into the game. Alfred Blue bounced a run to the outside. However, Haden, whose job is to contain the outside against the run, got sucked into contact with Hopkins. He was watching the quarterback, he knew it was a run, but still kept moving away from his responsibility and closer to the receiver. In turn, a five yard run goes for 48.
Will Haden follow receivers?
Overall, it was a comforting return for Haden. If anything, just the sole fact that the team has more confidence in Haden than any other cornerback on the team matters. Haden showed great technique and understanding of his role in the defense.
Now, the question comes, will Haden continue this idea of following the best player or was it specific to DeAndre Hopkins? While it may not specifically be for Hopkins only, it will depend on the matchup.
What is nice about knowing that you can travel with receivers is understanding all of the variety in coverage now available. As mentioned, they can throw Haden, the top corner and a safety on a player, or against players more manageable than Hopkins they can try to island Haden. They can also throw Haden at number two receivers, island him, and throw extra coverage to the side of Burns against a top receiver.
Potential receivers on the upcoming schedule include Josh Gordon, Tyreek Hill, Mike Wallace, DeDe Westbrook, and Brandin Cooks. A lot of those are deep threat receivers, and are very different beasts than Hopkins. How will the Steelers adjust?