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I know, I know, on the week Cleveland Browns fans lose face-of-the-franchise left tackle Joe Thomas for the season, they surely don’t want to read about how their other longtime staple is thriving in Pittsburgh with a new team and a new scheme that better utilizes his current skill set. But cornerback Joe Haden has been a beleaguered figure in the media for several years now amid Cleveland’s dumpster fire, and he deserves a little praise for his fine play in the Steelers’ zone-heavy defense.

In his prime, Haden was an excellent man-coverage corner, with the size and athleticism to combat true No. 1 receivers all over the field. Injuries eroded much of Haden’s movement skills, though, especially his deep speed, which simply hasn’t been the same in recent years. Yet the Browns continued to ask Haden to shadow No. 1 receivers up until the final stages of his career there, despite the fact that he was obviously struggling with the assignments.

Haden isn’t the player he used to be, but the Pittsburgh Steelers recognized a valuable fit for its defensive scheme and pounced when the veteran corner was released, immediately jettisoning Ross Cockrell to the New York Giants and inserting Haden into the starting lineup. According to Pro Football Focus Elite, the Steelers play less man coverage than any team in the NFL and it isn’t close, around 10 percentile points below the next closest team at just over 10 percent of their defensive snaps.

As a result, the fit has been a good one with Haden, who doesn’t have to move spots and can simply focus on left cornerback with a lot of Cover 2 and Cover 3 looks. The latter allows him to get depth right away in his third, which helps negate some of the speed issues he faced when forced to turn and run with receivers in press man. By staying on top of routes off the snap, Haden isn’t stressed deep as often, which puts him in better position to make plays on the ball running hip-for-hip with receivers rather than always playing catch-up.

Haden has also been excellent at breaking on the ball in his zone drop, showing veteran level awareness to process routes that others might consider just on the fringe of his zone. The Chiefs sent three vertical routes hoping to sneak Travis Kelce out of the backfield for a seam shot, which they would have been able to do successfully if not for an exceptional play by Haden. Dropping in his deep zone, Haden processed the route combination, possibly from something he saw on tape, and came off his spot to drive on the seam throw and make a play on the ball at the catch point.

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That’s an outstanding play, and not the first time Haden has made a play off his zone defending the seam. The Steelers have been hurt by these routes in the past, but Haden’s exceptional football IQ and swift mental processing have helped him make extraordinary plays that Pittsburgh desperately needs in its secondary.

From a skill set perspective, there are two things that Haden does that no Steelers cornerback has done in quite a while. The first is his ability to make plays at the catch point and find the ball in the air. Admittedly, Haden does this better as a zone corner, where most defensive backs typically have an easier time finding the football. But despite playing zone heavily for years now, the Steelers have rarely had good on-ball production from their corners.

Haden (and the rest of the Steelers secondary) hasn’t been thrown at much this season, but he’s consistently made good plays on the ball when targeted, nearly coming up with interceptions on both of the above plays. He reads receivers and breaks on routes better than any corner in recent Steelers memory, which allows him to make plays on comeback and curl routes that have typically been easy pickups for Pittsburgh opponents in past years.

The other thing Haden does exceptionally well is tackle. He’s been terrific at closing on receivers, coming to balance, wrapping up and getting opponents to the ground, especially on quick throws. In zone schemes, players will give up some of those underneath throws, but they have to make tackles and limit yards after catch. Haden has been excellent at that, something Cockrell and Antwon Blake, the two most recent starters before Haden, struggled to do. Haden has also been good in run support with his positioning and tackling, another area where Steelers cornerbacks have failed miserably for years.

It might not be prime Haden, but he’s been a massive upgrade over anything Pittsburgh could have hoped for when training camp began, and he’s improved every week in the Steelers new defense. He got his first interception of the season last week off a tipped pass, and he’s been in position for several others due to his ball skills and anticipation. Having said that, Haden’s lack of deep speed could still be exposed on the outside at some point, and he’s worth keeping an eye on if Pittsburgh ever transitions to more man coverage. But for now, Haden is thriving in his new environment, and the Steelers have to be incredibly pleased with his early contributions.

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