Analysis Notebook: Week 3

Joe Haden has had an ugly start to the 2014 season, but is it time to worry, or is he actually still playing OK?

| 3 years ago

Analysis Notebook: Week 3

analysis notebook copyAfter working through my games this week and taking a look around the league I was struck by this little nugget from the cornerback data, enough to tweet about it – Joe Haden’s numbers so far have been terrible.

It got me thinking – has the contract gone to Joe Haden and spoiled his play as the money has done to other players so often in the past? Has Haden been victimised by some impressive players and just how bad has his coverage been to not only surrender those kind of statistics but also grade so poorly at PFF.

So I started digging through the data and the tape to figure out what was wrong. Haden is one of the few corners in the league still tracking or shadowing receivers. Richard Sherman remains almost exclusively at left cornerback. Patrick Peterson has now joined him doing the same thing, and Haden is probably the last corner remaining used truly to shadow an opponent’s best weapon in every game. This has to a large extent been his undoing so far this season.

Jimmy Graham is a matchup nightmare for a defense. Teams don’t have linebackers athletic enough to live with him in coverage and his blocking is of little threat in the run game, so most teams now treat him as a wide receiver for personnel purposes, even if the league and Saints don’t. When a team sees Graham in the huddle they are treating him as a wide out so often he will draw coverage from a defensive back, especially when split wide or to the slot. That way they can put their best cover guys – like Joe Haden, say – on him, and at least have the best chance of preventing a catch.

The problem with that is that he’s almost as much of a matchup problem for them than he is for any linebacker. Haden can live with Jimmy Graham athletically. He is as fast and agile, but while Graham is 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, Haden is 5-11 and 195. He’s giving away eight inches in height and 70 pounds in weight. That’s an eight-year-old boy, or a decent-sized german shepherd.

It leads to inevitable plays like this:

2014-09-24 12_14_48

Haden man up with Graham, in perfect position, even getting a little more physical than you’ll see some officiating crews happy to let go, and still just can’t stop the guy making the catch anyway. This wasn’t the only time this happened against the Saints. Graham scored a touchdown on a similar play in the game.

In man coverage down by the goal line the Saints just tossed the ball up in the air to Graham on a fade route. I’ve no idea what exactly eight inches in height equates to in terms of wingspan and catch radius, but needless to say it was more than enough. Haden knew what was coming, he even backed off a little looser than he would normally play the route specifically so he could take a running jump to attack the ball and Graham at it’s highest point – he still couldn’t get there.

So we can give Haden something of a pass on the Graham game, but who else has taken advantage of him? Antonio Brown and Steve Smith are the other two receivers to have pretty big receptions into his coverage. Smith beat him just enough deep for the ball to sneak in over the diving hand of Haden late in the Baltimore game. He was beaten, but not torched.


People will probably remember Antonio Brown beating him into the end zone for a touchdown against Pittsburgh, but might not remember exactly how that play unfolded.  On 1st and 10 Haden was covering Brown split wide to the left. He was in good position at the release and actually read the route the Steelers wanted to hit Brown on, maintaining inside position and cutting off the dig route, forcing Ben Roethlisberger to pull the ball down just as pressure arrived.

2014-09-24_12-09-28From here it became a scramble drill, and Haden allowed some space to open up by looking back to the quarterback. This was a mistake, but an understandable one. Just as he took his eyes off Brown to find out what was going on in the backfield, the Steelers’ receiver broke deep toward the end zone, leaving Haden to scramble to close the gap again. Roethlisberger saw the space and launched the ball to the far side of the end zone, hitting Brown perfectly just as Haden got back to the play.

Again Haden was beaten, but it was close coverage and an unfortunate series of events that led to it. This is far more a great play from quarterback and receiver than it is a bad one by Haden.

So what conclusion have we arrived after all of this? Haden’s numbers are awful so far, but is he struggling badly, and will he turn it around?

The biggest problem he has had this year has been not making many positive plays of his own to offset the negative. So far Haden has zero interceptions and zero pass breakups on the 17 balls sent into his coverage.

The bottom line, though, is that Haden has run an early-season gauntlet of tough matchups. The Browns will continue to use him to shadow receivers, so it’s worth remembering that his ride isn’t going to get much easier as the season goes on, but as long as he remains in tight coverage on these plays the balance at the end of them will eventually tip in his favor. So far he has been a little unfortunate that his close coverage hasn’t been quite enough to stop some excellent receivers. Going forward I expect in some games it will be.

Haden’s numbers make for worrying reading through three games, and he has been beaten more than is usual, but don’t panic because he’s still playing pretty tight coverage, and eventually that will pay dividends.


Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam



| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN and NBCSports.

  • Chris

    The idea of shadowing #1s, unless you’re Revis and you’re the best ever, is that you’re trying to limit the damage from the opponent’s best weapon.

    If you don’t track with your best cover guy, Graham is going to go off and put up numbers all over the field on several different corners, LBs, and safeties.

    If you put your best cover guy on him (Haden), Graham is still going to put up some good numbers, but the idea is hopefully not as good as the numbers he’d put up when matched up with lesser defenders most of the game.

    This puts Haden in an unenviable position. He’s being tasked with slowing down, not stopping, team’s best weapons, so that they don’t do more damage elsewhere in the secondary. This means his numbers aren’t going to be as good because he’s constantly playing damage control all game. He can play great coverage all game but because the guy he’s marking is one of the best WRs (or TEs) in the league, he’s still going to give up catches and yards and TDs.

    The trend of tracking #1s was in vogue the last few years but now with Peterson joining Sherman as solely LCBs, this philosophy seems to be dying out. Cleveland apparently thinks it still benefits their defensive gameplanning more to have Haden try to limit the damage of their opponent’s best weapon.

    • micronot

      Until Justin Gilbert turns into the player that the Browns hope he can become, Haden will have to cover the other teams top receiving threat.

      • Chris

        Yep I agree. It’s a coaching philosophy. In their opinion they are better off using Haden this way, despite it giving him “bad numbers” because it helps out the other cover guys. If they kept Haden on the left opposing teams would feast on the opposite side.

    • Perfundle

      The choice isn’t only between single-covering the opponent’s best receiver with Haden and single-covering him with a lesser CB. If the team sees that Haden is getting beat they should give him help, especially when Graham is accounting for half of Brees’ receiving yards

      • Chris

        If you give help then you’re creating holes elsewhere by default

        • Perfundle

          Then let those holes develop against lesser receivers. Graham averaged 9.1 yards per target, compared to 4.1 yards per target for the other receivers. There’s no point in worrying about holes elsewhere when Haden himself was the biggest hole on the field.

          • Chris

            Unless the only reason the rest of the coverage did so well is because Haden took the toughest challenge himself and the other cover guys all helped each other out?

            It’s 6 one way half a dozen the other. Unless you’ve got 2 shutdown corners you’re always going to be helping and leaving other areas open. I’d argue the Browns would still give up the same yardage fi he stopped shadowing, it would just come in different ways.

          • Perfundle

            They might give up the same passes, but it would be to lesser receivers than Graham, who would have a harder time of catching them.

            Also, don’t be under the misapprehension that Haden never gets any help. He got help throughout the season last year, so it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for him to be given it this year:


            Cleveland is currently giving up the most yards per play of any defense. You can throw out all sorts of hypotheticals, but what they’re doing right now doesn’t seem to be working. You don’t know if they’ll give up the same yardage if you don’t attempt a change.

  • lfv

    What I remember about that brown TD was brown blatantly pushing off Haden twice.

    • Runner1967

      Oh so complete fantasy then.

    • micronot

      Yes, you are correct. Brown pushed off on Haden TWICE on that route… and of course, no flag from the officials. I think the Steelers offensive linemen were also HOLDING, to buy Roethlisberger time to scramble on that play as well. The officials seem to overlook these sorts of things from their “favored” teams.

      On the opposite end, against the Ravens, Hadens hand touched the back of a receiver and he was flagged for interference. There was no tugging, no force to interrupt the receivers route, not enough contact to deserve a flag. Contrast that to a Ravens DB tripping up a Browns WR and no flag gets thrown.

      Biased officiating like this means that the Browns have to work all that much harder in order to earn a win.

      • Chris

        I agree with most of this but incidental tripping of a WR is not a penalty no matter how bad it looks.

  • Izach

    I think you both need to reevaluate what you consider a push off and holding. Lmao

  • Dohkay

    Would be interesting to see the number of times and the outcomes of CBs vs. #1 WR/TEs. Understand that Haden shadows them the whole time so his numbers likely don’t change much but maybe we could also see the few times per game that the #1 moves over to Sherman or PP and the results. Things like catch rate, yards per target, etc. but narrowed down for the top receiving threats only so you can somewhat compare them like-for-like.

    Of course that assumes that the offense decides to put their #1 on that side in the first place which may be few and far between…

    • Chris

      They already ran a piece on this in the offseason. What I wish they’d do is post all the hard data so we can play with it.