By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com
The Morning Kickoff …
The road to elite: Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield were the first two Browns players I knew to download game film onto laptop computers and study film on the team plane, and, oftentimes, on the team bus on game day.
This was revolutionary in the 1980s. Not coincidentally, the inseparable cornerbacks reached a new level in their games after putting in more time off the field to their craft. They became “elite” before the term was used to describe the very best at their position.
Joe Haden is at that juncture of his career. Entering his fourth season, he has the pieces in place to elevate his game.
His home life has settled down after getting married in June. His demeanor at work is all business. After a four-game suspension last year due to a positive test for Adderall, Haden feels he owes everybody – his team, his fans, himself – to be the very best player he can be. And toward that end, he is putting in the time like never before.
Instead of watching film on a laptop, Haden studies video on a team-issued iPad.
“Now, since I’m legit following (all) No. 1s, it makes it so much easier,” Haden told me. “The film dudes give me cut-ups of all the receivers I’m going against and every route they run. I’ll be at home and I’ll send them a text and say, ‘Can you send me the Cincinnati v. Ravens game?’ and they’ll just send me the game with all the routes already cut up. If you don’t watch film now … it’s crazy. It’s right at your fingertips.”
Haden, only 24, has become one of the most studious players in the Browns’ locker room. In a 20-minute sitdown last weekend, I asked Haden to break down his game. In the first of two parts today, Haden told me his goal was to “eliminate all catches,” but conceded there is one play he cannot defend.
He’s come a long way: When Haden joined the Browns as the No. 7 overall pick of the draft in 2010, he had played cornerback only three years of his life. He didn’t know what he was doing.
“Honestly, when I was at Florida, that whole time I was there was on athletic ability,” Haden said. “All they had me doing was hustling and tackling.
“I was always good at tackling. When I was in Little League, I played middle linebacker. When I was in high school, I played safety. I was always a good tackler. And I played quarterback. When I came here, Coach (former DB coach Jerome) Henderson helped me a whole lot with my technique, made sure I stayed on top of receivers. He helped me a whole lot with my press (coverage). And now, Coach Lou (Cioffi), he’s been helping me a lot with my ‘off’ technique.
“I think I’ve been getting better overall as a corner because I didn’t know my coverages (technique). I was just going off my athletic ability. Now it’s more like route recognition, more about studying film. What are (my opponent’s) favorite routes? On third down what do they run? If his split is this what do they run? Because that’s where you get to the next level. So I think the thing I’m getting better at is just learning the whole picture and the technique.”
Because of the emphasis on blitzing in the new defensive scheme of coordinator Ray Horton, cornerbacks will be asked to play press – getting in the face of receivers at the line of scrimmage – a lot.
“First and second down is more just however I feel,” Haden said. “Third down is definitely press coverage. I like to press a whole lot more on third.”
The height factor: At 5-11 and 190 pounds, Haden has average physical dimensions for his position. But as receivers 6-3 and taller keep churning out of the college ranks, Haden is shrinking. His opponents are getting bigger.
“It’s harder for me to cover smaller, quicker guys than taller guys,” Haden said. “But as far as, like, Calvin Johnson, he’s a freak. A.J. Green, he’s a freak. These dudes are freaks at wide receiver. And the thing is, I know I’m not gonna grow anymore, but I’m physical. I have a 41-inch vertical. I can jump with these dudes
“The main thing about them is them pushing you off at the top of their route. You’re in the corner of the end zone and then pushing and jumping off. It’s about them using that body more than how tall they are. I’m gonna be right there with them. The big, tall dudes aren’t gonna run away from me. I just have to fight through their hands and be able to play the ball, so I’m not worried about the taller receivers.”
So I bring up Haden’s nemesis, Green of the Bengals, who is five inches taller, 20 pounds heavier and a few hundredths of a second faster over 40 yards.
The image of Green soaring over Haden and plucking a ball out of the air in the middle of the field to set up a Bengals win in their second meeting in 2011 is a reminder of the one play that Haden can’t defend. Until that 51-yard reception to set up a game-winning field goal, Haden held Green to two catches.
“I thought the ball was gonna fly over everybody,” Haden said. “That play is a great player making a great play. Sometimes that’s gonna happen. I was with him the whole game, every play. You can’t take anything from him. This dude just jumped up 13 feet in the air and grabbed the ball. That’s just a really, really good play. It was in traffic, too. There’s no secret formula to that one. A.J.’s a great player.”
Next: Haden sizes up the Buster Skrine, Chris Owens, Leon McFadden position battle.
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.orgFollow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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