Analysis Notebook: Week 3
After 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.
Man has Joe Haden had a rough start to the year. Giving up a passer rating of 155.3, worst in the league
— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) September 23, 2014
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:
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.
From 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