BEREA: As the Browns attempt to avoid breaking the record for the longest losing streak in franchise history, the return of cornerback Joe Haden might be exactly what they need to finally plow through some of the obstacles that have kept them winless this season.
Haden returned Monday from his four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. He believes his comeback has given the Browns (0-5) renewed energy that could pay off when they host the Cincinnati Bengals (3-2) at 1 p.m. today.
“I could tell out there at practice,” Haden said. “I don’t know how it was when I wasn’t here, but since I’m back, we’re up, just amped. We’re hyped. You know I like to talk. I like to have fun. I’m smiling, making plays.
“Just bringing more emotion. I think, honestly, since I haven’t been here — [the team was] just going through every week and taking a loss — I’m coming in here fresh and bringing a spark. Like, ‘Let’s get this thing going. Let’s get it back on the road.’ ”
All eyes will be on Haden this afternoon. His matchup with standout wide receiver A.J. Green figures to be a deciding factor in the 79th Battle of Ohio. Haden plans to follow Green in coverage for the majority of the game, if not the entire time.
“We had some guys step in, but you can’t replace Joe,” middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “Joe is one of the special players in this league and to have him back, [he’ll take care of] one side of our defense. You know he’s gonna fight his [butt] off every snap. He has a great task seeing A.J. Green this week.”
Last week, Green became the first player in NFL history to eclipse 100 catches, 1,500 receiving yards and 10 touchdown receptions in his first 20 games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. In three games against the Browns, Green has tallied 11 catches for 209 yards and two touchdowns, including a 10-yard score in Week 2, when the Bengals defeated the Browns, sans Haden, 34-27 in Cincinnati.
“You’re not going to able to hold A.J. Green to zero catches,” Haden said. “You definitely know he’s going to get his sometimes, but I feel I’m going to get mine, also. You just make sure to limit his big plays. [The key is to] keep him in front of you and don’t let him go up top and go vertical, try to keep him on a leash a little bit.
“He’s one of the top receivers, and I feel like I’m one of the top corners. So being able to go against him and being able to just prove what you can do, it’s always good to play against the best.”
The showdowns between Haden and Green started during their college days. When Haden starred at the University of Florida, he went 2-0 against Green and the University of Georgia. They renewed their rivalry last season in the AFC North with Green and the Bengals prevailing in both meetings. On Nov. 27, 2011, Green leaped over Haden and made a clutch, 51-yard reception to set up the Bengals’ game-winning field goal.
“He knows what I do, and I know what he does,” Green, the fourth overall pick in last year’s draft, told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “He knows my strength. [It’s] just a battle. We are just going to be out there grinding. … [I] definitely have respect for him because he’s a great player in this league. You have to respect him.”
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton knows he must be aware of Haden. With Haden serving the first game of his suspension in Week 2, Dalton shredded the Browns’ secondary and finished with 318 passing yards and three touchdowns.
“Joe’s a great player and we figure he’s gonna be matched up with A.J. the whole day,” Dalton said during a conference call. “You just have to understand the type of player that he is, but we’re still gonna take our chances.”
Haden said he hopes the Bengals take shots at him to test whether he’s rusty after a four-week layoff. He spent much of the downtime training at his family’s gym in Maryland, and he’s confident he won’t miss a beat.
“I don’t feel rushed,” said Haden, the seventh overall pick in 2010. “I just feel like I just missed a couple games and I’m right back. It wasn’t like it was a downfall. I wasn’t just in the house just eating chips and stuff. I was doing what I needed to do, so I feel I’m right back and ready to play.”
Haden’s absence proved to be devastating for the Browns, who allowed 10 touchdown passes and 285.3 passing yards per game during his suspension. Haden played in the Browns’ 17-16, season-opening loss to the Philadelphia Eagles because the league had yet to rule on his appeal. He had six tackles and an interception, which he returned 50 yards.
Upon returning to the team’s headquarters Monday, Haden said Adderall triggered the failed drug test that led to his suspension and apologized to the organization and its fans. Now he’s eager to pay his debt and help the Browns snap their 11-game losing streak, which is tied for the longest in team history. The Browns also lost 11 in a row when they fell in the final two games of the 1974 season and started the 1975 season 0-9. If they lose today, they would set a new franchise record with 12 consecutive defeats.
“I feel like I should have been out there with them, and it’s my fault I wasn’t,” Haden said. “In a way, I do feel like I owe them. In the same way, I feel like I did my time. So when I’m out there, I’m still going to give it my all. I’m not going to try to do anything extra and play outside myself. But I think they’re going to notice I’m back.”
Strong safety T.J. Ward is convinced Haden will make a huge difference.
“One of my brothers has been out for a while,” Ward said. “Anytime you get a player back that you know can help, it can definitely be an emotional lift. I know the fans will be happy to see him back as well, so that could come into account too.”
Haden was asked if he thinks he’ll feel love from the fans today at the stadium.
“I hope so,” he said. “If not, once I get an interception, then I think it might change.”
The Browns signed quarterback Thaddeus Lewis to their practice squad, the team announced Saturday. The Browns waived Lewis from their 53-man roster Thursday to create a spot for Haden.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.