By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: Marriage certainly isn’t the key to earning a Pro Bowl selection for all NFL players, but it might be in the case of Browns cornerback Joe Haden.
In the midst of a Pro Bowl-caliber season, Haden attributes the success he’s achieved recently to altered habits off the field. Those changes were influenced by the four-game suspension he served last season for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy and reinforced by his June marriage to his longtime girlfriend, Sarah.
“He got married this year, and I think that’s a big part of your maturation process,” Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton said Thursday before practice. “You get married and you have another responsibility. That really ties into having responsibility to your teammates. I think the home life really does settle players down.”
Fewer late nights spent partying has paid off for Haden, the seventh overall pick of the 2010 draft. This season, Haden has virtually shut down Pro Bowl wide receivers Mike Wallace, Greg Jennings, Calvin Johnson, Dwayne Bowe and A.J. Green twice, and he’s aiming to eliminate another one as a factor Sunday, when the Browns (4-6) host Antonio Brown and the Pittsburgh Steelers (4-6).
“I think it’s mostly, honestly, the way I’m living,” said Haden, who has 41 tackles, three interceptions — he counts four dropped interceptions — and 14 broken-up passes this season. “My wife, I have a really good relationship with her. We’re doing super well just relaxing all the time. I’ve been studying the Bible a whole lot more, and I’m just really comfortable with myself and how my life is going.”
Haden had what he deems the best performance of his career this past weekend during the Browns’ 41-20 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. Green, whom Haden considers the second-best receiver in the league behind the Detroit Lions’ Johnson, had just two catches for a career-low 7 yards. Haden actually pitched a shutout because neither of Green’s catches came against his coverage. He also intercepted two passes intended for Green and returned one 29 yards for a touchdown, the first pick-six of his life.
“He had an exceptional game,” Horton said. “A.J. was held to his lowest total as a professional, and Joe provided big plays for us. Joe probably played as he has most of the year. He’s played exceptional, and you’d have to really look with a fine-toothed comb to pick out things that he’s not doing well.”
Haden blamed Adderall use for triggering the failed drug test that forced him to stay away from the organization for a month and flee to his parents’ home in Maryland last season. The Browns went 0-4 during the suspension, and Haden reflected on the direction of his life and career. He and Sarah got engaged during his downtime in the fall of 2012.
“When I got suspended, that really slowed me down and made me settle down and made me become a better professional,” Haden said. “You always get hit with curveballs. Everything happens for a reason, and I think the whole suspension thing got me to where I am now.”
Haden’s growth will likely get him to the Pro Bowl for the first time. He considers it a major goal, and he even has a laminated picture of the Hawaiian Islands hanging in his locker.
“He’s a force out there,” Browns defensive end Ahytba Rubin said. “I think he should be on his way to Hawaii this year.”
Haden has allowed a passer rating of 56.8 on balls thrown into his coverage, ranking eighth in the NFL among cornerbacks, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
“I don’t think any corner is playing better, at least I don’t believe any corner is playing better that we have faced,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “He’s good on the line. He’s good off the ball. He’s got great peripheral vision. He can feel receivers and look at the quarterback. He’s very difficult to trick because of those things. He’s just a very talented player whose experience is catching up with this talent.”
Browns strong safety T.J. Ward noted he doesn’t see Haden away from the team’s training facility as often now. Ward believes Haden, his best friend on the roster, is staying home more because he has matured.
Haden is also playing better than ever.
“He embodies everything you want in a young corner,” Horton said. “He’s athletic, he’s smart, he’s tough, and he’s a very good person on top of that.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.