Kevin Gorman: Steelers were smart to lock up lockdown corner Joe Haden
Cameron Heyward was watching the Pittsburgh Steelers-New England Patriots game tape Sunday night as a refresher, but it ended up serving as a reminder of Joe Haden’s impact.
Haden had 12 tackles, two passes defensed and made a picture-perfect leaping interception of a Tom Brady pass between Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski at the 4-yard line in the fourth quarter of the Steelers’ 17-10 victory over the Patriots last December at Heinz Field.
“I really thought Joe had one of the greatest games in that game,” Heyward said. “There wasn’t a lot of space for receivers. When there was, he was right there tackling. He had good run support. And he made the most critical play in the game. When you can have game-changers like that, it really sets you on fire.”
No wonder the Steelers made it their top preseason priority to sign Haden to a three-year contract worth $32 million that will keep him with the team through 2021, including a $16.8 million signing bonus that frees up salary cap space.
It was a critical play for a game-changer, as the 10th-year veteran has brought star power and stability to a position where the Steelers had neither. When the Steelers signed Haden in 2017, he replaced Ross Cockrell as the starter opposite Artie Burns.
Now, the Steelers appear set at corner for the next three seasons with Haden and Steven Nelson, who signed a three-year, $25.5 million free-agent deal in the offseason. The Steelers showed they don’t just value Haden but believe he will continue to be a productive player into what typically is a corner’s twilight.
That’s a risk the Steelers were willing to take, even if the contract is front-loaded.
“I texted him last night and said, ‘I’m inspired,’ ” Nelson said. “That’s definitely one of my goals. He’s still good, still moving around. There’s not much of a drop-off, if any. I don’t see it if there is. He’s as good as he’s always been.”
That the Steelers also believe it “meant a lot” to Haden, who turned 30 in April. Then again, when asked if he views this as his last contract, he was quick to dismiss: “Not even close,” Haden said, twice. “I feel like I’ve got some years left in me.”
The Cleveland Browns didn’t show that same faith. Haden was a first-round draft pick and the face of their franchise, but the Browns cut him before the start of the 2017 season. Haden quickly signed a three-year contract with the Steelers, the final year of which was torn up for this new deal.
“When I came here, I didn’t think I was going to leave,” Haden said, noting how Steelers coach Mike Tomlin limits the wear and tear on his veterans. “I knew when I signed a three-year extension, I had two years to come over here and ball out and try and stay here as long as I could. I really like Coach T. I love the way they run the organization here, the way they treat the vets. So all we can do is go out there and ball for them.”
The Patriots game wasn’t the only proof Haden still can play, as he called it “my best game and my favorite game last year.” But the loss to Kansas City showed Haden’s absence was as profound as his play. The Steelers allowed Patrick Mahomes to complete 23 of 28 passes for 326 yards and six touchdowns in a 42-37 loss to the Chiefs. That was the only game Haden missed, because of a hamstring injury.
Haden had 63 tackles in 15 games last season, his most in a single season since 2014. That’s the year he was voted Pro Bowl captain. That’s one reason the Steelers were willing to reward him for playing at a high level.
If Haden plays out his contract, he will make $123.8 million in career earnings, which would rank between NFL greats Darrelle Revis ($124.2 million) and Champ Bailey ($102.75 million) among the highest-paid cornerbacks of all-time.
“When I look back at it, it’s definitely going to be something amazing,” Haden said. “Right now, while I’m living in it, I’m trying to continue to let everyone know I’m worth the money, that I’m worth the contracts that I’m getting.
“It’s an honor and a pleasure to be up there with Champ and Revis and guys like that, but for me, still I’m loving the game and trying to be the best I can be, still trying to make the Pro Bowls and All-Pros and stuff like that. I’m excited I’m still playing at a high level, and the Steelers appreciate it.”
What the Steelers appreciate is the leadership Haden brings to the locker room. Not only is he one of the team’s best spokesmen — he was the recipient of The Chief Award, given by the Pro Football Writers of America chapter — but he sets the example for the rest of the players at his position.
“Obviously, he has more experience than everyone in our room,” Nelson said. “He’s not super vocal. He just shows his leadership through his play and behind the scenes. It’s good for us to have him locked up and ready to go.”
By locking up their lockdown corner, the Steelers are counting on Haden to be as good as he always has been.
You can bet he’s ready to ball.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .