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Haden fitting in, looks ahead to playoff chase

Friday, September 8, 2017

Associated Press

PITTSBURGH

The Pittsburgh Steelers made an uncharacteristic open-market splurge when they lavished Joe Haden with a $27 million contract on the eve of the regular season firm in the belief the two-time Pro Bowl cornerback could give the secondary a needed jolt.

The least Haden figures he could do in return is participate in the NFL locker room version of trickle-down economics

Haden arrived in Pittsburgh having worn No. 23 during each of his seven seasons in Cleveland. One problem: in the Steelers locker room that number belonged to safety Mike Mitchell, who had no intention of giving it up.

So Haden improvised, offering safety and special teams ace Robert Golden an undisclosed sum to give up No. 21, a small windfall Golden was only too happy to take.

Haden chose the number as a tribute to Hall of Famer Deion Sanders. Maybe it’s fitting he couldn’t get No. 23 anyway. When in the midst of a mid-career makeover, no reason to get nostalgic.

Less than two weeks after getting cut by the perpetually rebuilding and seemingly star-crossed Browns, Haden will run out of the visitor’s tunnel in Cleveland for a club that may as well have “Super Bowl or Bust” draped across the front of the team plane.

“I was just looking forward to trying to get to the playoffs, trying to spread my career to play where I haven’t played,” Haden said. “With them, I knew the opportunity was going to be there.”

An opportunity that never materialized during Haden’s tenure in Cleveland. Though he developed into one of the league’s top shutdown corners — making the Pro Bowl in 2013 and 2014 — the other pieces never seemed to fall into place, as the Browns kept going through coaches and quarterbacks searching for answers that still haven’t materialized.

Haden stressed he’s not angry about how things ended in Cleveland, which cut him with in what he described as nothing more than a “business decision.”

The Browns are retooling — again — and by the time the process is done, it’s unlikely Haden would be around anyway. The move to release him only pushed up the inevitable.

The Steelers were only too happy to elbow their way to the front of the line. Offensive linemen Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert — both former college teammates at Florida with Haden — started pleading their case via text the minute Haden began a free agent.

“I told him, ‘let’s get on with it,’” Pouncey said with a laugh.

It didn’t take long. Haden was in such a rush to join the Steelers he immediately flew to Carolina to meet with coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert before Pittsburgh’s preseason finale.

A couple of hours later, Haden had a pen in his hand. The night after that, he was on the Steelers sideline in a black sweatsuit going around introducing himself to his new teammates.

“It is a different feel over here,” Haden said. “It is a different vibe.”

One that Haden is quickly immersing himself in. The Steelers felt so confident Haden would be ready for the opener they sent cornerback Ross Cockrell — who started all 19 games in 2016 — to the New York Giants just before rosters were trimmed from 90 to 53.