Cleveland Browns' Cornerback Joe Haden Reunites with Defensive Coordinator Ray Horton

After a forgettable 2015 season that saw Browns’ cornerback Joe Haden appear in only five games, the six-year veteran looks to return to form under new defensive coordinator Ray Horton.

Calling Haden’s 2015 season disappointing would be an understatement. The Maryland native appeared in only five games, ending the season on injured reserve due to multiple concussions. In the five games Haden did appear, his play was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

According to Pro Football Focus, Haden gave up an almost perfect 158.2 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks (perfect is 158.3). He was repeatedly victimized for long gains and allowed four touchdowns.  His low point during the disastrous season came in his final regular season appearance against Arizona in which he gave up two scores, including a 60-yard bomb to Michael Floyd.

Injuries aside, how did the two-time Pro Bowl selection (2013 and 2014) and consensus top-ten cornerback’s play erode so quickly? Was it scheme? Technique? Let’s put on the tape to see what we can discover about Haden’s play by comparing his All-Pro 2013 season (under Horton) with his catastrophic 2015 season.

After a solid three-year start to his career in which he recorded nine interceptions and 143 tackles, Haden took his game to the next level during Horton’s single season as the Browns’ defensive coordinator (2013). The former Florida Gator recorded four interceptions (returning one for a touchdown), 20 passes defensed, and 43 tackles on his way to a second team All-NFL selection. Haden thrived (with the exception of a few unnecessary touchdowns given up due to overaggressive play) in Horton’s mix of aggressive man and zone defensive coverage, combining outstanding technique with good eye discipline to elevate himself to a borderline elite defensive back.

Horton plays a variety of MOFC (Middle Of the Field Closed) coverage shells on early downs to bring an extra defender into the box. During previous stops in Arizona (2011-2012), Cleveland (2013), and Tennesee (2014-2015), the defensive coordinator often utilized Cover 1, or Man-Hi, a man-coverage defense with a single deep safety playing center field.

The two most common techniques in Cover 1 are press or off-man.

In press coverage the cornerback will align over the wide receiver at the line of scrimmage. The defensive player will use his body and hands to disrupt the receiver, looking to deliver a punch to the pass-catcher's chest (known as a jam) before he can get into his route. When executed properly, press coverage works well because it disrupts the timing of the receiver's route, prevents him from releasing cleanly at the line of scrimmage, and allows the defender to stay in his hip pocket through the route stem (or break).

In off-man coverage the cornerback will align 7-8 yards off the line of scrimmage and take slow 'penny steps' backwards or remain flat-footed at the snap. He will move his eyes between the wide receiver and cornerback to jump common three-step routes like the hitch and slant. Once the receiver threatens to break the cornerback's cushion, he will turn and play regular man coverage.

In the image above, Haden is in a press alignment over A.J. Green (top of the image). Haden is aligned with inside leverage (his outside foot over Green's inside foot) to prevent Green from crossing his face. Haden wants Green to release outside here as the receiver's wide split (distance from the core of the formation) will allow Haden to pin any outside routes to the sideline.

Good press coverage can be broken down into three coaching points (although there is no universal technique):

  1. The Stance
  2. The Jam
  3. Mirroring the Receiver
  4. Locate the Ball

Good press coverage technique starts from the feet up with the cornerback’s stance. The feet should be shoulder width apart, with bent knees and dipped hips to create a low center of gravity. Most of the body’s weight will rest on the balls of the feet, resulting in a slight lean forward. Many coaches teach the body position using the phrase “Eyes and nose over toes,” as this position creates an athletic stance and balance.

Notice Haden's strong base. Without a low center of gravity he will lose a receiver of A.J. Green's caliber at the line of scrimmage.

The next coaching point of press coverage is likely the most well-known, the jam. A guiding principle of man-press is that the hands MUST work with the feet at all times. If the feet stop moving when the jam occurs, the cornerback will lose his battle.

A jam can be executed with one or two hands. With two hands, the defensive back should aggressively strike the receiver’s chest plate with his palms out and thumbs up. If the receiver has released to one side, the defender should strike with the opposite hand, as this will allow the shoulders to turn in conjunction with the hips. The cornerback must NEVER punch with same hand to the side of the wide receiver release (we'll see why later).

The third (and often most difficult) coaching point of press technique is known as 'mirroring' the receiver. The cornerback’s goal is to move in whatever direction the receiver moves using short, lateral steps, or ‘hot feet’. The defender should stay square in his stance to avoid turning too soon. This movement will block the wide receiver from running straight upfield by forcing him to move around the defensive player.

When the wide receiver approaches the cornerback’s hip, he will kick step by opening his hips 45 degrees towards the receiver. By not turning completely, or ‘opening the gate’, the defensive player forces the pass catcher to move around, rather than through him. This angle also allows the cornerback to screen the wide receiver by getting in the path of his route.

Finally, when playing man coverage, the cornerback must never look back for the ball too early, as turning the head slows down the body, creating seperation. Although again the specific coaching points differ by system, defensive backs are taught to read the wide receiver's eyes to cue them to the ball. When the ball approaches the wide receiver, his eyes will enlargen as he tracks it through the air and he will raise his arms to make the catch. When the defensive back sees cues they are taught to 'rake the pocket' by using their arm to rip through the recevier's hands while getting the head around to avoid a pass interfernce penalty. 

Let's start with a look at Haden playing press coverage on Torry Holt in the red zone.

Notice Haden's inside leverage. Because the split is so wide, Haden does not want to let the receiver cross his face. Instead, force an outside release and use the sideline as a boundary to pin the receiver.

Haden does not get off an intial punch at the line of scrimmage, but because he uses his 'hot feet' and turns towards Holt's release he is able to make contact four yards downfield and muscle the receiver into the sideline. He stays overtop and knocks the ball awayfor a pass defensed against a pass-catcher with great in-line speed.

We can see the importance of using 'hot feet" and mirroring the receiver as Haden faces A.J. Green likely running a fade from the 15-yard line.

Green initally shakes Haden, forcing him to open his hips in the wrong direction with an outstanding 'in-out' release. Because Haden continues moving his feet, he is able to recover using a baseball turn and cut-off Green's route against the sideline. 

In addition to using good technique, Haden did a great job executing his responsiblity within the coverage.

The next clip shows Haden playing Cover 3 (a three-deep, four-under zone coverge), in which he must play a deep-third of the field. The cardinal rule of playing a deep-third in Cove 3 is to not get beating deep. Underneath defenders will handle the short and intermediate pass game; do not let anything hit vertical.

Basic Cover 3 cornerback technique is to align 7-8 yards off the line of scrimmage (although teams like Seattle will aggressively jam before retreating) with outside leverage (the defender's inside foot over the receiver's outside foot), forcing the receiver inside where a single deep safety and two hook/seam defenders will clog the middle of the field. At the snap the cornerback will execute a zone turn, flipping his hips inside so his back faces the sideline. This allows the defender to see the route concept as it develops and watch the quarterback.

The offense is targeting Haden's side of the field with a dig-wheel route combination. The concept is to force the cornerback to break inside with the dig route, then slip the whel route behind him

Notice how Haden bails at the snap and makes his zone-turn to keep overtop any potential pass-catchers entering his zone. Because the curl-flat defender at the top of the screen is carrying the wheel route, Haden can squeeze the dig route, creating another pass defensed. Haden has put himself in position to make the play by using sound Cover 3 technique to keep the receiver in front of him at all times.

We can again see Haden execute his role within the coverage on a third-and-short play the resulted in the defense getting a stop and giving the ball back to their offense.

The defense is in a 'trap-flat' coverage to the trips (three recevier) side of the field. The concept behind trap coverages is to confuse the quarterback by making the cornerback appear to be playing a deep-third or straight-man, when in fact he is responsible for any route to the flat. In our example Haden will make a zone turn at the snap like he is playing Cover 3 before passing off the #1 (receivers are counted outside-to-in) wide receiver off to the half-field safety. He will read the #2 and #3 receivers, looking to jump to first route the shows up in the flat (Justin Gilbert returned an interception for a touchdown against the Colts off a trap-flat coverage).

At the snap Haden already has his back to the sideline in order to read the wide receivers' routes and peek at the quarterback. Notice the angle of his helmet; he is clearly reading here. The Bengals are running a 'Stick' concept, attempting to read the nickleback's leverage to target one of two out routes. Because Haden reads the play and jumps the ball so quickly he is able to stop the first down in spite of the receiver making the catch.

One of Haden's four 2013 interceptions came off a beautifully-executed 'Box' check out of Cover 4 (Four deep, three underneath defenders).

The Box check has emerged as a popular adjustment to the common 'Bunch' formations (three wide receivers aligned in very close proximity) many offenses utilize. Box is a four-over-three pattern-matching concept in which the defenders will distribute the coverage based on the receivers' release. Think of it as a match-up zone in basketball.

The defenders will take a receiver in man coverage after the snap by reading their releases as in or out. The defender lined up over the receiver on the line of scimmage will generally press the point man to disrupt the route concepts timing, then take the first recevier to break out. The outside cornerback will take the second recevier to break outside, protecting the corner of the field. The in-the-box linebacker will take the first in-breaking route, protecting against shallow cross while the safety take the second in-break, looking to protect the post.

Because this is a four-over-three coverage the defense will end up with an extra defender to rob or double-team after the defensive backs and linebackers have manned-up.

Let's break down how the defense matches the offenses three-man 'Levels' concept (Two digs and a flat route).

Although Sheard does not get a jam on the point man, he does a good job immediately matching the first out-breaking route. The linebacker collisions the #2 receiver before passing him off to the free safety, who easily picks him up running a dig route. Haden must pick up the second out-breaking route or vertical outside route after Sheard mans the flat. Watch how Haden patiently backpedals to let the routes stem before breaking out of his pedal as soon as he recognizes the dig route.

Andy Dalton adds himself to the Haden's highlight reel by gifting him an interception on a poorly-thrown ball. Even if Dalton doesn't thrown the ball right to Haden, this play is dead in the water as the linebacker can be seen robbing the curl zone underneath. Due to the Box check the coverage turned into a Hi-Lo bracket on the targeted receiver, a big win for the defense.

Why did the, technical, assignment-sound defender we see on the 2013 tape perform so poorly in 2015?

Like Horton, former defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil played a heavy dose of Cover 1 and Robber to keep a single deep MOFC safety with press coverage on the outside, so scheme shouldn't have been a major issue (there are only so many ways to play Cover 1). Injuries and a drop in confidence were likely a factor, but were they a major factor in most of Haden's struggles? A look at the tape reveals many of Haden's issues in 2015 stemmed from breakdowns and mental lapses in technique, particularly in press coverage.

We see poor technique early in the second quarter of the Browns' week-1 loss to the New York Jets, which leads to a 44-yard gain to the wide receiver.

The defense is in man coverage with a single-hi deep safety to protect the middle of the field. The Jets run a three-level concept at the defense with an in-bending vertical, out, and flat route. Against man coverage the quarterback's progression is:

  1. Vertical route
  2. Out route
  3. Flat route

Coaches often refer to this read as "touchdown to first down to check down" because the quarterback should read the routes from high-to-low.Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick quickly recognizes the man coverage, decisively getting the ball to the first read in his progression for an explosive gain. A closer look at Haden's technique reveals why the recevier was able to beat him downfield with ease.

Going back to our basics of press coverage, we should see a powerful stance, off-hand jam, hot feet to mirror the wide receiver's movement, and a last-momement attempt to locate the ball.

The wide receiver wins this route at the snap, as Haden commits two cardinal sins at the line of scrimmage. First, rather than using short, lateral steps to mirror the receiver's release, he inexplicably does not move his feet. He compounds the error by pressing with the wrong hand, putting his upper body out of sync with his hips and feet so he can't turn as quickly to make up the lost ground. He finishes off the play by looking back for the ball 15 yards before it hits the receiver's hands. Haden has panicked, creating more seperation for the recevier and taking himself out of any position to compete for the ball.

We see Haden make the same mistake during the Browns' week three 27-20 loss to the Oakland Raiders. Haden is aligned in press technique over super rookie Amari Cooper at the bottom of the screen. Cooper is already one of the best in the NFL at creating a free release at the line of scrimmage with a variety of moves, but Haden has covered A.J. Green twice a season for five year; the rookie shouldn't give him major problems.

Haden does not move his feet at the snap and appears to guess at Cooper's release, leading to a weak jam attempt with the wrong hand. Cooper easily bats the jam aside with his hands and makes a nice back-shoulder catch for an early first down.

In a week eight 34-20 home-defeat to the Arizona Cardinals (Haden's final appearance of the season) Haden was credited with allowing two touchdowns, including an embarrassing 60-yarder to Michael Floyd that could sum up his season in one snap.

Haden is isolated to the backside of the trips formation and the Cardinals want blood. Bruce Arians loves to push the ball downfield and he knows Haden is stuggling. This is a perfect opportunity to take a vertical shot against a defender who has lost his mojo.

Haden aligns with outside leverage as he appears to have help inside from a safety (it's impossible to say for sure without knowing the exact call). With outside leverage the recevier should never beat Haden across his face towards the sideline. Force the recevier to release inside towards the help and play him from outside-in. Unfortunately this happens:

Haden ends up with a face mask full of grass while Floyd jogs the ball into the end zone for an easy six points. Where did Haden break down?

Haden does an okay job mirroring Floyd's release at the line of scrimmage, but he doesn't punch with his off-hand to disrupt the route's timing. This free release allows Floyd to get outside and around the cornerback fairly quickly, forcing Haden to play from behind and preventing him from cutting off the route stem with his body. Haden panics from the get-go, looking back for the ball 20 yards before it hits the recevier's hands.Notice how Floyd seperates from Haden starting at the Browns' 45-yard line. This is what turning the head too early to peek will do to a defensive back.

Where does Joe Haden go from here? Can he recover from his forgettable 2015 campaign? Ray Horton seems to believe so.

During his introductory presser Horton said of Haden's role within the defense , "Joe will be a vital part. He's one of our elite players who has to play better. I love Joe's athletic ability. I love his leadership ability. As long as he is healthy, he'll be on the field starting for us. I expect good things from Joe Haden."

A heatlhy, confident Haden playing under the defensive coordinator who helped guide him to arguably his best season as a pro should be a comforting though for Browns' fans. Last season's 27th-ranked defense badly needs its' playmaker on the outside to return to form. If Haden's comes into training camp with his trademark confidence and hunger, I wouldn't bet against him.


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