PITTSBURGH – Joe Haden admits he’s not as fast as it was a decade ago.
On the other hand, there were few players in the NFL who could keep up with the longtime cornerback in the early days of his career.
Still, the now 32-year-old believes he hasn’t lost a step since arriving in Pittsburgh on the eve of the 2017 season. It’s one of the reasons he’s made public his hope that he will stay with the Steelers long after his current contract expires next spring.
“My band speaks for itself” Haden said.
Pittsburgh saw enough in 2020 – when Haden picked up two passes and knocked down 14 more for the NFL’s third-placed defense – to keep Haden in place of fellow cornerback colleague Steven Nelson during the off-season. The Steelers let Nelson go in a salary cap, though Haden had a higher cap of $ 15.75 million for 2021.
That’s just the nature of the business Haden became familiar with when the Reconstruction Browns let him go after training camp ended four years ago. He sprinted to sign with the Steelers, where he thrived. He made it to the Pro Bowl in 2019 and has only missed three games in the past three seasons while remaining effective on the other side of his 30th birthday.
Haden is aware that 30 acts as a sort of expiration date for players who make a living chasing down receivers, who are usually bigger, stronger, and in some cases faster.
He started prep a few years ago, hiring a full-time physical therapist to help look after his still wiry 5-foot-11, 195-pound body. He changed his offseason program to focus more on speed than strength, thinking it doesn’t matter how strong he is if he can’t find the man he was paid to be.
Despite being the third oldest player on the team behind quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and defensive tackle Tyson Alualu, Haden has a vitality that is in stark contrast to veteran defensive lineman Cam Heyward. Haden is a few weeks older than Heyward, though it’s hard to tell by watching her exercise.
It’s Heyward, not Haden, who groans every time he gets up. It’s Heyward, not Haden, walking around with fake old-man chatter. Haden pointed out that most of his teammates are surprised to learn that Haden is one of the team’s senior statesmen. Asked why they are surprised and he laughs.
“Do you see that baby face?” he said.
There remains a feather in Haden’s step. He ran step by step with 23-year-old wide receiver Chase Claypool on a deep ball along the sideline on Monday and knocked the pass away when both fell to the ground. However, not every game has paid off. He made a jump attempt to intercept a pass to James Washington and just watched the ball slide past his fingertips and into Washington’s hands, which turned out to be a huge win. Haden got to his feet and followed him with a smile as his teammates roared “Oooooohhh” when he appeared empty.
Hey, it comes with the territory.
Even after the departure of Nelson and linebackers Bud Dupree and Vince Williams, Haden believes the 2021 version of the Pittsburgh defense will be as good, if not better, than the 2020 edition that helped bring the Steelers to the AFC North Title to lead.
He’s impressed with the versatility of Defensive Back Cam Sutton, who jumps outside in and back again. He likes what he’s seen from James St. Pierre, who is given every opportunity to crack the first four defensive back rotations.
“I think we have, if not the same, or (maybe) a little better defense than last year.” Haden said. “Everyone has to play a role. We have to play their part and do what we did last year, do plays and we should be fine. “
What happens after that will likely remain a mystery, at least for now. The Steelers have plenty of cap space in 2022 and beyond, though it’s not known how much they’d be willing to spend on a cornerback in their mid-30s. Haden seems to care less about money than about the chance to end his career in a place he loves.
“Of course I want to stay here” he said. “Just the organization, the staff … I want to be here.”
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