If this were a question, it would be a trick one. After all, there is a surplus of information out there indicating that the Pittsburgh Steelers have more depth than they have had in a long time at the cornerback position. Further, the addition of Joe Haden last year has been lauded. Both of these points are accurate. But the importance of Joe Haden’s continued health and high-level depth at cornerback cannot be understated if the goal for Pittsburgh is a Super Bowl victory.
Let’s go back to the 2016-17 playoffs, when the Steelers lost to the New England Patriots by a score of 36-17. This game served as a backdrop to future team plans in handling the pass, as the Pittsburgh zone was literally destroyed en-route to giving up 374 yards through the air. Yes, a savvy Tom Brady once again proved that if you give his receivers open space, regardless of who his pass catchers are, he’s going to torch you. It wasn’t just the stats; it was the fact that his receivers were literally wide open.
And that game changed a zone team’s philosophy as it relates to the Patriots.
Fast forward to the future. Last season, the Steelers played the Patriots on December 17, 2017, losing by a score of 27-24. If it wasn’t for a ridiculous rule that took a touchdown away from the team, they would have won the game. The main reason why they were nearly victorious? The Steelers predominantly played man-coverage in the secondary. In this game, they gave up 283 yards passing, nearly 100 less than the year previous. And they didn’t even have their best cover man, Haden, for the game.
So let’s talk Joe Haden. First, he played great football for the team last season when healthy. He can take first receivers on in man-fashion, a commodity the Steelers haven’t had for a while. However, he has missed significant games due to injury during each of the past three seasons, starting only 28 combined games during that span. And in two of the past three seasons, he has started 10 games or less.
That said, during the first nine games he played last season, the team averaged giving up about 182 yards per game through the air. In the five games he was out right after that, they gave up a whopping 252 yards per game. Yes, Ryan Shazier’s injury played in as well in more than one way. That said, we are talking about 70 yards per game.
In the end, the Super Bowl goes through the New England Patriots right now in the AFC. The Steelers’ best chance to slow the Tom Brady express is through man-defense. Therefore, Haden’s health will be huge for the team. Doing what can be done to make sure he stays healthy, including in the preseason regarding rest, conditioning, etc. will be huge (he just sat out the preseason opener with a minor injury). But given how he has struggled to stay on the field over the past few seasons, just as important may be for the team to continue to work toward quality depth at the corner position. Not just players on a chart, but the kind of depth that would allow them to deal with the Patriots if Haden were to be unable to perform. Against the Patriots in 2017 their corner play was improved over the previous year’s debacle, even without Haden. But when you face Brady in the playoffs it’s a different animal, so the bottom line is that Artie Burns and the gang need to improve in order for the team to truly be ready to challenge for the AFC title.
This is a major concern simply because there is no defeating the Patriots without strong cornerback play. A positive sign? Coty Sensabaugh and Cameron Sutton were able to play well in the preseason opener.