Nobody knew it at the time, but the Joe Haden discussion started for the Steelers shortly after the 2016 AFC Championship Game. During a 19-point loss to the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium, the Steelers pass defense was picked apart by Tom Brady, and the instant analysis was that the solution would be to employ man-to-man coverage in the secondary.
It really didn't matter that the Steelers roster was ill-equipped to do that against a quarterback of Brady's caliber, the notion that the only way to beat the Patriots was to play man-to-man coverage had taken root. To the proponents, there was nothing else to discuss.
When the Cleveland Browns cut Haden on the eve of the final week of this preseason, the Steelers had a crack at a legitimate No. 1 cornerback, and the sides quickly agreed on a two-year contract. The Steelers then had starting cornerbacks capable of man-to-man coverage, and the work on implementing it began.
At his news conference today at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, with a game against the Patriots on the immediate horizon, Mike Tomlin was asked whether he believed the defense was more capable of playing man-to-man and if more time had been spent on practicing it. Typical of an NFL head coach, Tomlin's answer was evasive.
"I feel like we're in a better position to (play man-to-man), and we have practiced it more, globally speaking, over the course of a 12-month calendar," said Tomlin. "We'll see what it looks like."
As soon as Haden was signed, Sunday, Dec. 17 at Heinz Field was circled by Steelers fans as the perfect time to see what it looked like, but then in a game against the Indianapolis Colts on Nov. 12, Haden broke his fibula. He hasn't practiced or played since, and each Tuesday following that Nov. 12 game against the Colts, Tomlin would rule him out of the subsequent game.
But that didn't happen today.
"We're getting back into the phase of things where it's time to have a Joe Haden discussion," is what Tomlin said instead. "He has worked hard and done some good things, and he'll be on the practice field in some form or fashion this week. The amount of time he's on the practice field will be determined by what he does when he gets out there. And obviously his availability will be determined by what he does when he gets out there, and the quality of it. That's something that bears watching day-to-day. Joe has worked extremely hard."
Following their season-opening win against the Browns in Cleveland, the Steelers awarded a game ball to Haden because in his seven previous seasons in the NFL he had never been on a team that started out 1-0.
On Nov. 16, after the Steelers defeated Tennessee to run their record to 8-2, it was another milestone for Haden, because he never had been on an NFL team that didn't finish the regular season with a losing record.
The following weekend, after a win over Green Bay put the Steelers at 9-2, it was another milestone for Haden, because he had never been on an NFL team that finished the regular season with a winning record.
And then last Sunday night, following the Steelers' victory over the Baltimore Ravens, Haden reached another professional milestone: he had never been on an NFL team that had made the playoffs or won a division championship, and the Steelers clinched both with that 39-38 win.
"It probably was one of the most rewarding images I saw in the locker room Sunday night after the game: Joe Haden in his AFC North Champion hat and T-shirt," said Tomlin. "He was excited about it and rightfully so. Hopefully we'll get him back into the land of the competing so he can be back in the fold with us, but only if it's ready. Only if he's ready and it's appropriate."
The process of figuring that out begins Wednesday when the on-field preparation for the game against the Patriots begins. From there, whether Haden can play, and how he will play if able will be determined.
When asked what kind of a boost it might provide the Steelers defense to have Haden back in the lineup, Tomlin said, "I don't know that. He hasn't played for a number of weeks. He hadn't been with us for a long period of time even prior to that, so I don't know what getting back on the horse is going to look like. I don't know what his availability is going to look like, because this is the first time I've come off an injury with Joe. We're going to do what's appropriate, not only with his level of health and confidence, but also the competitive aspect of it. Our goal is to win the game, and if Joe is capable of being a part of that, then we'd be excited about it."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"We had a few injuries occur in the Ravens game, some availability things are in question because of it. Vance McDonald with a shoulder injury, Coty Sensabaugh with a shoulder injury, Tyler Matakevich. Those guys will be evaluated, and their participation and the quality of their participation during the week will determine their availability."