Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Joe Haden isn’t taking anything for granted.
The eight-year veteran, who has never played in the playoffs, experienced a scare when he broke his leg a month ago against Indianapolis. Five weeks later, Haden has recovered to the point where he’s on track to play Monday when the AFC North champion Steelers (11-3) visit the Houston Texans (4-10).
“Once I found out that I didn’t need surgery, and it was going to be four to six weeks, my whole goal was to make sure I could get back within the regular season, so when I come into the playoffs, there’s no question, I’m ready to go,” Haden said.
Linebacker James Harrison won’t be making the trip to Texas. Harrison’s long tenure with the Steelers is over.
The AFC North champions released the five-time Pro Bowl linebacker and 2008 NFL defensive player of the year on Saturday to make room for right tackle Marcus Gilbert. Gilbert is returning from a suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy.
The 39-year-old Harrison is the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks, piling up 80.5 during his 14 seasons with the Steelers and 82.5 during his career. Harrison briefly retired in September 2014 following a forgettable 2013 season in Cincinnati but returned when the Steelers ran into injury trouble.
He collected at least five sacks every season between 2014 and 2016 and signed a two-year deal last spring that would have kept him in Pittsburgh through his 40th birthday.
Harrison’s playing time dipped significantly this season. He has been active in just five of Pittsburgh’s 14 games despite being injury-free.
Haden spent his first seven seasons in Cleveland. Pittsburgh signed the two-time Pro Bowler on the eve of the regular season after he was released by the Browns.
Haden is excited to have an opportunity to see the playoffs this season.
“Every time I was in Cleveland, around Week 13 or 14, we kind of knew we were eliminated from playoff contention,” Haden said. “This is a whole different vibe.
“This is what we’ve been fighting for the whole season and I love it because you have so many people who have been in it already and I’m just kind of following their lead.”
Haden almost didn’t get that chance, suffering a broken fibula on Nov. 12 at Indianapolis.
Last week, he returned to practice for the first time since the injury but in a limited capacity before missing the game against New England. He was held out as a precaution but has been full-go this week while preparing for Pittsburgh’s visit to Houston.
“I just wasn’t game-ready [against the Patriots],” Haden said. “I wasn’t able to make cuts and breaks and have confidence jumping and landing. This week, everything felt good, and when I came out to practice, I was able to have so much more confidence and make all the movements that I needed to.”
That confidence has carried to the Steelers’ defense, which is ranked No. 4 overall and fifth against the pass.
Pittsburgh ranked 16th against the pass last season, but Haden provided an immediate boost on the back end.
The Steelers allowed an average of 284 total yards, 15 points and 181 yards passing per game with Haden in the lineup. Pittsburgh gave up an average of 350 total yards, 26 points and 251 yards passing per game with Haden sidelined for five weeks.
“I was having fun at the beginning of the season, being able to play on a winning team, being able to play with my guys. the secondary was doing really well, our defense was doing well,” Haden said. “When I was out, it kind of felt like I was in the way. I just wanted to be part of it and now it’s nice just being able to work myself back into being able to play.”
Haden is making sure he doesn’t take anything for granted along the way.
“This is my first time going to the playoffs,” he said. “A lot of people on this team wouldn’t understand that. It’s a special feeling knowing that January is when the real ball is going to start.”
Steelers G Ramon Foster (concussion) and CB Coty Sensabaugh (shoulder) are questionable. ... WR Antonio Brown is out with a left calf injury.