Kevin Gorman: Joe Haden 'excited' for his 1st postseason
Joe Haden is finishing the regular season against the same team he started it with, but with a different ending than ever before.
“I'm just excited,” Haden said, “that this isn't my last game of the year.”
Seven seasons with the Cleveland Browns ended the same way, with the finale serving as the final game. Six were against the Steelers.
That makes Sunday's Steelers-Browns game at Heinz Field even more special for Haden, who switched sides in the AFC North rivalry after the Steelers signed him hours after the Browns released the star cornerback.
“Once that happened, once I got released by Cleveland,” Haden said, “I just knew that I had a bright future ahead of me.”
In a week that saw the Steelers release their all-time sacks leader after James Harrison sulked about his playing time, Haden has been all smiles.
Where the Browns (0-15) are trying to avoid a winless season, Haden is headed to the postseason for the first time in his career.
“After going through this whole season, it's a blessing to be here on this team going into the playoffs,” Haden said. “If I was still there, I would have been still playing the same amount: hard, giving it everything I got. I could easily be in that position.
“I'm here, not doing anything different but it's a completely different outcome. My skill set, (the Browns) felt like they didn't need any more. But here, it's accepted and appreciated, and I couldn't be any happier.”
Neither could the Steelers, as Haden drew praise from coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler for his coverage of Houston Texans star DeAndre Hopkins.
The Steelers saw the difference in the secondary while Haden was out with a fractured fibula.
They dropped from the NFL's No. 2 pass defense to fifth after allowing 262.3 yards and seven touchdown passes of 30 yards or longer — five of 50-plus — in the five games he missed.
Butler called it a “stroke of fortune” that the Steelers signed Haden a week before the season started, even more so that they will have him for the playoffs.
“We think he's going to help us, and I am sure he is excited about what is coming up, too,” Butler said. “He has never been in this situation, so it's one and done.
“The intensity is going to go up, which it should, and it's going to be up in terms of trying to try and beat Cleveland. This game right here we have to play well against Cleveland, then we'll worry about what we have in the bye and we'll sit at home on our big fat fannies and watch the TV and see what's up.”
For now, Haden is focused on making the Browns finish 0-16 — even though he wouldn't wish that on his worst enemy, let alone his good friends and former teammates.
“They're trying to come here and get a win,” Haden said. “But, at the same time, we're trying to go into the playoffs with momentum. So we'll see.”
Meantime, the Steelers still are pinching themselves over having Haden. His presence and play has solidified the secondary, and the veterans are enjoying his excitement for his first taste of the NFL postseason.
“We all still think it's crazy that he's on our team, like, ‘Y'all let go of Joe Haden?' ” said Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey, a teammate of Haden's at Florida.
“The way he works, the way he carries himself, you can only appreciate that type of guy. I think he's changed this team dynamic defensively. Honestly, it's unreal. You don't see those types of moves in the NFL. When you do, it's like, ‘Wow, I can't believe that happened.' ”
It is unbelievable, especially for the Browns. They cut Haden, only to have to face him at the start and finish of their forgettable season.
It has been a memorable season for the Steelers, who are two playoff victories away from the Super Bowl.
“Honestly, I don't feel like it's going to be too much different,” Haden said. “I'm ready for big games. That's just something I did in college. And here, too. Every game is a big game with the Steelers. Everybody brings their best shot when they play against us.”
Everybody except for maybe the Browns, who did Haden a favor when they allowed him to switch sides. Just don't expect him to repay it in his first season finale that doesn't mark the final game of the season.