Browns cornerback Joe Haden finally has a contract to match his talents

AFC NORTH NOTEBOOK

Troy Polamalu slower but savvier for Steelers; unbeaten Bengals struggling to finish off first-half drives

  • Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden intercepts a second-quarter pass during a Browns win last November.
Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden intercepts a second-quarter… (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun )
September 20, 2014|By Aaron Wilson | The Baltimore Sun

In NFL locker rooms, respect isn't earned only on the field. The almighty dollar also helps.

When the Cleveland Browns signed Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden to a five-year, $68 million contract in May that included $45 million guaranteed, it affirmed his reputation as one of the top cornerbacks in the game — and his value to the AFC North franchise.

"What sets Joe Haden apart? He's not an average corner," Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith said. "His contract, that shows you he's not average. He's a good player. He has all the accolades and attributes of a great corner. That's why he's their No. 1 corner."

Haden had an interception against Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco during a 24-18 Browns win in Cleveland in November.

The former Friendly star was a Pro Bowl selection last season and was also second-team All-Pro. He has 13 career interceptions and one touchdown since being drafted in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft out of Florida.

"Joe Haden is as good as there is," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We've played him every year, and I don't hear a lot about him, except for the fact [that] when I watch him play, he speaks volumes in terms of the way he plays. If you want an evaluation, he's quick, he's athletic, he has ball skills. He's a stick-to-you cover corner."

In four NFL seasons, Haden has 245 tackles, 68 passes defended and three forced fumbles. His new four-year deal included a $14 million signing bonus.

"I think his salary says it all," Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "If people from the outside don't want to respect it, his organization does, as they should. Going against him twice a year every year, I definitely think you can put him out there anytime and argue with anyone as being the best in the league."

Haden struggled somewhat in a win Sunday over the New Orleans Saints. Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham (6 foot 7, 260 pounds), often matched up against the 5-11, 195-pound Haden, had 10 catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns.

"He's physical, but he's also crafty," Torrey Smith said of Haden. "He can play the ball well. He can bait you into thinking you have one thing, release-wise, and he'll give you another look. He can play both press [coverage] and off equally as well. Like most corners, he'll try and take his chances. He has been obviously one of the better corners in the league over the years."

Growing up in Virginia together, Smith and Haden became childhood friends.

They maintained close ties when Haden moved to Maryland for high school and went to college at Florida, and now frequently attend each other's offseason events.

Haden's grandfather, a pastor, spoke at the funeral for Smith's younger brother, Tevin, when he died in a motorcycle accident two years ago, and when Smith and Haden were planning their respective weddings last year, they invited one another to attend.

"It's always fun to play Joe," Smith said. "Obviously, he's one of the best corners in the league, but he's also one of the best people I know. I've known him for some years now, and he has always been supportive of me and my events in the offseason. Half my family goes to his grandpa's church.

"We have a bunch of mutual friends from him being down in Virginia coming up. So he's a great guy, he's a great corner, and it's always fun to play against him."

Polamalu still going strong

When Ravens tight end Owen Daniels challenged Troy Polamalu over the middle in the third quarter last Thursday, the Pittsburgh Steelers safety delivered a powerful hit.

Polamalu was penalized for a helmet-to-helmet collision, but the play showed that the veteran, even at age 33, remains an authoritative presence in the Steelers secondary.

"I think my mind reacts faster" now, Polamalu told Pittsburgh reporters this week, acknowledging that he's not quite as fast as he was in his younger days. "You don't consciously say, 'I lost speed,' because you work all offseason to maintain it. Your game definitely adjusts as time develops."

Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau expressed confidence that the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year remains a high-level performer. Polamalu forced five fumbles and intercepted two passes last season. For his career, he has 728 tackles, 32 interceptions, 12 sacks and 13 forced fumbles with 99 passes defended.

"He can look at video of an opponent, carry that onto the field, and when he sees certain situations, he's usually got a step or two … on the opponent," LeBeau said. "He's still plenty physically gifted, but it's the mental prep that he has now. He's shortcutting a lot of things to get to the ball."

Bengals not starting fast

The Cincinnati Bengals are unbeaten in their first two games, with wins over the Ravens and Atlanta Falcons.

One shortcoming has surfaced, though: They've struggled to finish drives early in games.

Of the Bengals' 11 first-half drives, they've scored only one touchdown, a problem that hurt them in their narrow season-opening victory over the Ravens. Before quarterback Andy Dalton found wide receiver A.J. Green for a game-winning, 77-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, Cincinnati's five previous scoring drives had ended with field goals.

awilson@baltsun.com

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