There was a point earlier in the 2014 season where Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden openly admitted he wasn't playing his type of Pro Bowl caliber football. In Week 3, Ravens receiver Steve Smith put a move on Haden late in the fourth quarter for a deep catch, setting up the game-winning field goal for Baltimore.
"I have to make that play," Haden said stone-faced in the locker room afterwards.
Those Haden struggles now seem like ancient times.
On Sunday against the Raiders, no defensive player was as prevalent and impactful as Haden. The 25-year-old led the Browns with nine tackles and added these two terrific pass breakups – watch below for the Vines.
"Those were two big-time plays he made like back-to-back in that one drive," said coach Mike Pettine. "The one he knocked away on the long ball I thought was special. To me, it's a function of how he practices and how he prepares."
In the first half of the Tennessee game on Oct. 5, Haden gingerly trotted towards the locker room with a hip injury. Fans, coaches and his teammates worried it might keep him sidelined. Instead, Haden fought through the pain and helped ignite the Browns defense, not just in the Titans game either. The unit has been on an absolute tear the last 14 quarters, shutting down the prolific Steelers offense (Ben Roethlisberger threw for 522 yards and 6 touchdowns) and essentially holding the Raiders out of the end zone until a late garbage time touchdown.
Unlike the month of September, October will be remembered for scintillating improvement on defense – and Haden's play at cornerback is at the forefront.
"Everybody is just doing their job," said Haden about the defenses growth. "Everybody is playing with passion. Everybody is playing aggressive, relentless, fighting. Everybody is not trying to do somebody else's job. Everybody is just letting the plays come to them. It's just showing how good our defense can be when you just do what you've got to do."
Sometimes in a deadlock game, like the 9-6 dogfight the Raiders and Browns were entrenched in, somebody plain and simple just has to make a play. On the second to last play of the third quarter, Donte Whitner rose to the occasion, forcing a fumble on Raiders running back Darren McFadden. The hit, no doubt, changed the game. But it was Haden's swift recovery and rapid 34-yard return that breathed life into the Browns' offense.
"We always talk about on the sideline – somebody has to make a play," said Haden. "We always want to get the ball back into the offenses hands. And no matter where we are on the field, we just always feel like as long as we have a blade of grass somebody is going to make a play."
Haden's lockdown performance couldn't have come at a better time. Looming on the Browns' schedule are the Buccaneers, Bengals, Texans and Falcons. Haden will be asked to respectively shutdown Vincent Jackson, A.J. Green, Andre Johnson and Julio Jones.
That's fine for Haden. He'll be up for the challenge. He prides himself on being one of the best cornerbacks in the league.
"He showed why that he has the reputation that he has tonight," said Pettine.