By Vic Carucci, Senior Editor
So what is it? What makes Browns cornerback Joe Haden one of the NFL’s very best at his position?
Well, there’s his size. At 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, Haden has the frame that allows him to hold up physically against any wide receiver in the league.
Then, there’s his tremendous strength. And his excellent quickness. And his outstanding footwork. And his superb ability to close on the ball. “And then his explosion out of breaks,” Browns secondary coach Tim Hauck says. “Phenomenal.”
Those are the football qualities.
But there’s more. So much more.
Leave it to a wide receiver, Mohamed Massaquoi, to capture the essence of what puts Haden in the upper echelon of NFL cornerbacks. As Haden’s teammate, Massaquoi has had plenty of up-close encounters to develop a thorough understanding of the player and the person who has lined up at left cornerback for the Browns since joining them as a first-round draft pick from the University of Florida in 2010.
“It’s the personality of Joe,” Massaquoi says. “Just the confidence. It’s not cocky at all. It’s almost like the boyhood, fun nature that he brings to the game. He just enjoys it.
“Then you have his competitive nature. He’s always looking for the big play. And he’s not one of those prima-donna type guys. He’ll get in there, he’ll do the dirty work, he’ll tackle.
“When you wrap all that up, you get the man.”
Now, add to that the extra incentive of wanting to overcome a major career setback, and you have a player driven to perform at a consistently high level.
After the first week of the season, the NFL suspended Haden for four games for violating its substance abuse policy. Since his return, he has redoubled his efforts to show, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he excels at what he does. Although Haden has played in only six games (he missed a fifth with an oblique injury), he leads the Browns with three interceptions for 64 yards in returns. His third came in last Sunday’s 20-14 victory over the Steelers.
“Definitely, I missed the game a lot,” Haden says of his suspension. “I had a lot of time to sit back and just realize how much the game really meant to me and just how much me playing meant to a lot of other people. It gave me a lot of time to grow up and I realized that my play on the field impacts a lot more people than just me. And I’m going out there and playing like that now.”
Browns safety T.J. Ward, a second-round pick in the 2010 draft and one of Haden’s closest friends on the team, believes the suspension had a profound impact on Haden.
“I think he’s just really focused right now,” Ward says. “He feels he missed out on an opportunity to become better and become the player that he wants to be and help this team win. He’s doing everything in his power to help this team win and become a great cornerback.”
That was Haden’s intention entering the 2012 season. He could feel himself moving closer to greatness. During the offseason, Haden concentrated on improving the weaker parts of his game.
One of the biggest steps he could feel himself making was finding comfort with the transition from the primarily zone-coverage scheme the Browns played in his rookie year, when he made six interceptions, to the man-to-man emphasis that began when Dick Jauron became defensive coordinator in 2011. Haden had no interceptions that year, but did an excellent job of keeping the ball away from receivers.
And he entered this season determined to make his cover skills even better.
“I trained, practiced a lot harder,” Haden says. “I just wanted to come in and be established. I wanted to be known as one of the best corners from everybody’s point of view, not just inside of the Browns’ organization. I wanted to be known nationally as one of the top corners.
“And knowing the game a lot better, it’s slowing down a lot more. I’m a lot more comfortable. I’m starting to feel like the receivers have to beat me instead of me going against them. It’s just a whole different mindset.”
As Ward points out, being a great player in the NFL means you can do everything that your position requires. Excelling at only one aspect of the job isn’t good enough.
When Ward looks at Haden, he sees the completeness necessary to be regarded as something much more than ordinary.
“He’s an all-around good cornerback,” the safety says. “He can be physical with you, he can be finesse with you, he can run with you, or he can get up on the line and pressure you.”
To keep Haden on the right track, Hauck makes a point of constantly harping on him about the importance of being properly aligned for each snap. That’s because sometimes, when Haden expects the play to go away from him, he’ll just stand up in the secondary rather than lean forward in a “ready” position. His immense talent allowed him to usually get away with that in college. That doesn’t work in the NFL.
Haden also takes lessons from Browns right cornerback and 11-year veteran Sheldon Brown “all the time.”
“So now Joe is able to really go out there and play off of not only his talent, but just his understanding and technique of the whole game,” Massaquoi says. “Joe can hold his own against anybody throughout the course of a game. He is one of the elite corners.”
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