The 5-foot-11, 195-pounder was once considered one of the premier "lockdown" corners in the game, bringing an array of bump-and-run (press coverage) techniques that stifled elite WR1s. At his best, Haden could shadow shifty receivers with his superb lateral quickness and change-of-direction ability or go toe-to-toe with big-bodied pass catchers with an aggressive "bully ball" style that made it a street fight on the perimeter.
Haden's suffocating tactics helped him hold opposing QBs targeting him to passer ratings of a 75.0 in 2013 and 67.6 in '14. During this time, he earned a hefty payday (five-year, $68 million contract extension in the spring of 2014) that confirmed his arrival as a VIP on the island.
While injuries and skill deterioration have seemingly affected Haden's game, the veteran gives Pittsburgh a legitimate CB1 with press-cover skills to feature in a new scheme that will take away some of the layups that plagued the team's previous zone-heavy approach.
Last year, the Steelers employed some form of zone coverage on 75.3 percent of their defensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. That was the second-highest percentage in the NFL, trailing only the Panthers (79.9 percent). Although the zone-based philosophy is rooted on the premise of creating turnovers on tips or overthrows due to vision on the quarterback (defenders get quicker breaks on throws in their area because they see the ball leave the QB's hand), the secondary needs the pass rush to disrupt the timing of the passer to force errant throws from the pocket, particularly on short and intermediate passes. In 2016, the Steelers allowed a 64.6 percent completion rate (24th in the NFL) despite tying for ninth in sacks (39). While the raw sack total would suggest that the pass rush was effective, the high completion rate shows that quarterbacks were able to get the ball to pass catchers in the voids of Pittsburgh's traditional zone and zone-blitz concepts. Think about the number of dink-and-dunk throws Brady completed to Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan during the Championship Sunday tilt.
In man coverage, the defense can take away the layups (quick screens, slants, Y-sticks and quick outs) by alignment and force the quarterback to make more contested throws on the perimeter. Throw in a little pressure via the blitz or a traditional four-man rush, and the signal caller's accuracy will additionally dip against man coverage, leading to more tips and deflections down the field.
"Coverage and pressure go together, always do," Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler told reporters during minicamp in June. "We got to be able to develop a four-man rush and not just blitz all the time. What we did last year is we ran a lot of false blitzes that weren't really blitzes but appeared to be blitzes and played zone behind it.
"This year, we have to be able to play conventional coverages with conventional people playing those coverages with conventional people rushing the passer. We got to be able to do that in order to advance defensively, in my opinion. We got to be able to put pressure on the quarterbacks with just four men."
Regardless of whether the Steelers are bringing five or more rushers when playing man-to-man or attacking with a straight four-man rush, the onus is on Pittsburgh's corners to hold up on the perimeter with occasional assistance from a lurking linebacker in the middle or a deep safety between the hashes. The CBs must play with proper leverage to direct their assigned receivers to their designated helper(s) in the middle. For instance, slot corners should play with outside leverage in Cover 1 (man-free) to take away out-breaking routes because they have help between the hashes.
This brings me back to why Haden's signing signals the Steelers' commitment to man coverage. The veteran corner not only has experience playing on the island in man-to-man, but his presence will allow Pittsburgh to help the team's younger corners by instructing the safety to lean away from the newly acquired veteran. Thus, Artie Burns, Ross Cockrell and Cameron Sutton can get help over the top to protect them from getting beat.
Now, it is important to note that Haden must be near the top of his game to allow the Steelers to lean their safeties away from him. But even a B-level performance from the veteran should help the team employ more man tactics. If Haden can simply contain the mid-level/upper-echelon WR1s and compete against the truly elite guys, the Steelers will be better positioned to make the transition to man coverage in 2017.
MATTHEW STAFFORD'S $135 MILLION DEAL: A no-brainer for Detroit
From Stafford's prototypical physical dimensions to his A-plus arm talent and athleticism to his clutch playmaking ability, there isn't a glaring hole in his game that would prevent you from calling him a blue-chip quarterback prospect at any level. That's why the former five-star recruit and 2005 Elite 11 MVP was the top QB prospect in his high school class and entered the NFL as a No. 1 overall pick.
Looking at Stafford's individual production on the field, it is hard to dispute his spectacular resume. He was the fastest quarterback in NFL history to reach 30,000 passing yards (109 games) and he has posted six straight 4,000-yard seasons. Not to mention, he is one of just five QBs in league history to top the 5,000-yard mark in a season. And after struggling with injuries over his first two NFL seasons, Stafford has now started 99 straight games heading into the 2017 campaign.
Thus, he has undoubtedly delivered the kind of raw production that's expected from a franchise quarterback.
Now, skeptics quickly point out that Stafford sports a 5-46 record against teams that finish the season at .500 or better (compared to a 46-15 record against sub-.500 squads), yet they fail to tout his 20 fourth-quarter-comeback wins over the past five seasons, easily the most in the NFL. (He set a single-season record with eight in 2016 alone.) Naturally, Stafford's 0-3 playoff record is also a point of contention, but few cite the defense's poor play (31.7 points allowed) in those postseason games.
I have a hard time understanding all the hate that bogged down my Twitter timeline when news of Stafford's deal hit the ticker on Monday. Whenever we discuss a talented gunslinger with a spotty winning pedigree (see: Jay Cutler), we bash the guy for underachieving. But we also dismiss the accomplishments of game managers who consistently guide their team into the playoffs (see: Alex Smith). What exactly do all these naysayers want out of the game's most important position? Unfortunately, there just aren't enough Tom Bradys to go around.
As a scout, I learned to categorize quarterbacks as either trucks or trailers. What does this mean? QB1s are either capable of pulling their team to the winner's circle primarily based on their superior talent and ability to elevate everyone else's play (trucks) or they must lean on a stellar supporting cast to help them play at their best and win games (trailers). Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Cam Newton are examples of trucks, while Smith, Andy Dalton, Eli Manning, Kirk Cousins and even reigning NFL MVP Matt Ryan would be labeled as trailers, based on their respective talents.
When I look at Stafford's overall game, I believe he is a truck in every sense of the word. He has shown the football world that he can put the team on his back. The Lions' ability to compete against the league's heavyweights comes down to whether Stafford can deliver A-level performances week in and week out. While that's not a dismissal of Stafford's supporting cast, I believe history shows that he typically has to overcome a non-existent running game and a questionable defense to win games in Detroit.
From the Lions' perspective, Stafford certainly has checked the boxes that second-year GM Bob Quinn desires from a QB1.
"To see Matt work last year and into the offseason program and into the start of training camp, he embodies what we want in a Lion," Quinn told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday. "He's a great teammate. He's tough. He's competitive. He has tremendous work ethic. He's one of the first guys in the building every day, and I think he's a great example for our young players and a lot of those guys are following him."
Coach Jim Caldwell also sees Stafford as a field general with the work ethic and leadership qualities of a model QB1 Detroit will continue to build around.
"We do have a guy that continues to grow," Caldwell said to the assembled media Tuesday. "We do have a guy that's smart and tough and is a good leader. When your hardest worker is your best player, there's a lot of things you can say about that in terms of leadership coming from that position.
"We have a guy that's stable there for a long time."
Considering how hard it is to find a blue-chip player at the position and how more QB1s are talking about playing into their 40s, securing Stafford's services was absolutely necessary for Detroit. With NFL success tied directly to the play of the quarterback, the Lions' decision to break the bank on an ultra-talented gunslinger with championship-caliber traits should be applauded throughout the football world.