Haden of the Steelers aims for the final with Pittsburgh | News, Sports, Jobs

Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku (85) makes a touchdown as Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Joe Haden (23) defends during the second half of an NFL football game Monday, 3 January 2022, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

NFL playoffs

Who: Pittsburgh at Kansas City

When: Sunday, 8:15 p.m.

Television: NBC

The bottom line: Steelers are 12.5-point underdogs

By Will Graves

The Associated Press

PITTSBURGH — Joe Haden felt terrible in the middle of last week as symptoms of COVID-19 took their toll.

A day later, the veteran Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back was off to a better start. Physically, anyway. Mentally, Haden feared that his second time in league protocols would end the same way as the first: with Haden watching on TV as Pittsburgh’s season was winding down quickly.

A year ago, Haden was a well-paid spectator as the Steelers were chased out of Heinz Field by Cleveland in the first round of the playoffs. He couldn’t shake a familiar feeling as Pittsburgh prepared to face Baltimore last weekend with a playoff shot on the line.

“I was angry” Haden said with a laugh on Thursday. “I was so upset. The only thing I wanted to know was, ‘Is there a way to start playing again?’ »

Haden left the protocols in time to make four tackles in a 16-13 overtime win over the Ravens that helped push the Steelers (9-7-1) on an unlikely trip to Kansas City (12-5) on Sunday to take on Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. While Haden played less than half of Pittsburgh’s defensive snaps, his presence helped a spotty-at-best unit find a way to limit the Ravens to a single touchdown.

His reward? At least one more week in black and gold and only the second playoff game of his 12-year career. It’s not a good ratio, and Haden knows it. That’s why he tells his teammates — especially players like first-year defensive back Tre Norwood — not to take this opportunity for granted. Haden spent the first seven seasons of his career playing for bad Cleveland teams. He knows how few opportunities to play until January are and how easily they can be taken away.

He therefore tries to savor every moment, however fleeting it may be for a player in the last year of his contract who will probably be elsewhere next fall.

“Once you’ve entered, everyone is on an equal footing”, Haden said. “It doesn’t matter what side you’re on, how you got in. There’s three games left before the Super Bowl. In four games, you’re a Super Bowl champion.

Even though the idea of ​​the Steelers — who are nearly two-touchdown underdogs to the two-time defending AFC champion Chiefs, according to FanDuel Sportsbook — staging an extended run seems unlikely. Any shot Pittsburgh has to slow Kansas City relies heavily on Haden and the rest of the defensive backfield finds a way to keep Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce in check. Haden will need to be at his best, something he can still consistently rely on over a decade into his career.

Haden didn’t have an interception, only the second time in 12 years that happened in a season in which he played at least 10 games. But he still had an impact. In a 19-13 win over AFC South champion Tennessee last month, Haden recovered a fumble to set up a field goal and held Titans wide receiver Nick Westbrook-Ikhine short of the first-down marker in the dying seconds to preserve the win.

“It was a huge game” said defensive coordinator Keith Butler. “And he invented these games like that for us and he’s been in the league for a long time.”

Just, it seems, not much longer in Pittsburgh. With so many needs in other areas — especially along the offensive and defensive lines — he’s probably too expensive for the Steelers to stay.

Yet the example of professionalism he has set over the past five years will persist in a room full of young players like Norwood and James Pierre. One of them, as Butler pointed out, is knowing how to live well – if you can afford it.

“I mean, obviously he rides around with a driver,” Butler said with a laugh of Haden, who earned more than $121 million during his career. “So he’s done pretty well in this league. He’s not daggummit hurt for anything, that’s for sure. But I love Joe. He’s a great guy. He’s a great guy to have on our team, that’s for sure.

NOTES: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster’s season may not be over after all. Smith-Schuster, who underwent right shoulder surgery in October, practiced Thursday for the first time since being injured in a win over Denver on Oct. 10. Coach Mike Tomlin did not say if Smith-Schuster could be available Sunday.

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