Joe Haden will never forget his welcome-to-the-NFL moment.
It was his second ever NFL preseason game. The Browns had traveled to Green Bay to take on the Packers at Lambeau Field.
Haden received plenty of first-team reps against the Packers. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense went right after Haden. Rodgers completed 12-of-13 passes for 159 yards and one touchdown.
"They were picking me apart," recalled Haden.
Haden brought up his struggles against the Packers to Browns rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert. Following an impressive debut in Washington on Monday Night Football, Gilbert found himself on the other end of the spectrum against the Rams and Bears. Both teams were able to beat Gilbert for long touchdowns.
The wakeup call Gilbert received in the preseason, according to Haden, could be the best thing for Gilbert and the Browns moving forward.
"It's better to get it early and understand that it's NFL caliber players out there and everybody's getting a paycheck so it's going to happen," said Haden. "Just have a short term memory. I remember my rookie season getting burned-up sometimes. It happens. You have to take in your nix, bumps and bruises and just know that coming into the season you got to have thick skin, you to be able to make plays and don't worry about it."
The expertise and confidence Haden is instilling is not just for Gilbert alone. K'Waun Williams, Robert Nelson and Pierre Desir are all fellow rookie cornerbacks that sit next Haden every day in the classroom. The Pro Bowler wasn't shocked that the Browns kept so many defensive backs around.
In particular it was Nelson who grabbed Haden's attention.
"Nelly was a nice kept secret that we had," said Haden. "The coaches really like him. He's a smart kid. He has a lot of talent and a lot of skills. He has really good ball skills. And he knows how to cover."
The Browns will need all the help they can get against Pittsburgh. Buster Skrine is returning from thumb surgery, and while he's expected to play, head coach Mike Pettine has noted that the team may ease him back.
In years past, not having Buster Skrine available for an entire game may have been shrugged off. But Skrine's evolution as a legitimate second cornerback in NFL has become evident to Haden.
"I'm so proud of Buster just being his teammate ever since he came in," said Haden. "Just to see his work ethic and how in the beginning it was a bumpy road. Definitely it wasn't going as well, he got a lot of penalties or whatever.
"But now just seeing him grow, seeing him mature and seeing him become a better corner and just a veteran on the team. Being able to understand defenses, he knows the calls; he's smart and just playing a lot more confident believing in his speed, being able to play the ball now. I love it just because it just shows the growth of a player and how he's like legitimately a big piece of this defense. It's just real special."
Because Isaiah Trufant has been placed on the injured reserve list, the Browns' nickel back position is a fluid one. Aaron Berry, Williams and maybe even Nelson could see their number called in certain situations.
"Everybody that we have out there is game ready, they've been proving [themselves] and the competition, just the skill-set, everybody will be able to help if they were out there," said Haden.
Haden has never been this confident in a Cleveland Browns defense heading into Pittsburgh. Because of the new system, because of the new coaching staff and because of the new pieces brought in via free agency and the draft, Haden expects his unit to be a catalyst in helping the Browns win more football games.
"We have legitimate starters on every position of this defense," said Haden. "We have people that make plays – impact players. We just need to make sure everybody does their job, and this defense can be special."