Browns cornerback Joe Haden believes elite opponents bring out the best in him.
If Haden’s theory is valid, he should be in top form today when he renews his rivalry with Cincinnati Bengals rookie wide receiver A.J. Green in the regular-season opener at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
“It should be like back in the good old days of Florida vs. Georgia,” Haden said.
Haden and Green faced each other twice in college. Although Haden and the Gators prevailed 49-10 in 2008 and 41-17 a season later, Green earned respect.
“He’s just big, tall and not only does he have speed [for] being so tall, he can still come out of his breaks really well,” said Haden, who led the Browns last season with six interceptions and 18 pass breakups as a rookie. “So he’s really one of the best receivers out there.”
The Bengals selected the 6-foot-4, 207-pound Green fourth overall in this year’s draft. He and quarterback Andy Dalton are expected to start as rookies and eventually become the faces of the franchise.
“We’re really pleased with A.J., and I think as he continues to play week in and week out, his progress will continue to grow,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “He has excellent hands, as we knew he did. But his ability to run after the catch has been really impressive. We knew that he was an aggressive player, would go in there and block, and he’s continued to show those things.”
The 5-11, 190-pound Haden, whom the Browns picked seventh overall in 2009, became aware of those attributes during his first encounter with Green. On Nov. 1, 2008, Green had five catches for 91 yards, including a 54-yard reception. Haden also shined, recording 10 tackles and an interception he returned 88 yards to Georgia’s 1.
Green didn’t fare as well in his second matchup against Haden. He was limited to three catches for 50 yards. Meanwhile, Haden had four tackles and a broken-up pass.
“He’s one of the best corners I’ve gone against,” Green said of Haden. “He’s fast, physical and a smart player. I’m going to have to bring my A game. He’s still the same physical corner [he was at Florida]. He’s smart and has great technique. I just have to continue being aggressive and physical.”
When Haden and Green duel today, Haden knows he cannot afford to let Green slip behind him. Haden said the bump-and-run, man-to-man coverage often employed by defensive coordinator Dick Jauron should put him in a favorable position.
“You definitely want to avoid the big, deep ball because that’ll kill you,” Haden said. “They can’t really kill you with comebacks and hitches and slants. But if they get over top with posts and fade routes, then that can hurt a team.”
In the preseason, Green caught nine passes for 96 yards, including a 40-yard touchdown from Dalton. He also had some rookie moments: a lost fumble and a dropped pass that turned into an interception. The Browns, however, are expecting Green to be a worthy adversary.
“He’s doing all the little things the right way,” cornerback Sheldon Brown said of Green. “He’s not taking plays off. He’s running crisp routes. If he’s gonna run a fade, he’s selling. If he’s gonna run a stop, he’s still selling the go. I like his game.”
With an AFC North victory at stake, Haden isn’t planning on letting Green have a breakout performance in his regular-season debut as a pro. He relishes the challenge.
“When you line up [against a star receiver], you get in a zone,” Haden said. “If you get beat one play, you’re a corner, so it happens. But you always want to beat them a whole lot more than they beat you.”
So far, Haden is 2-0 against Green. He considers anything other than a hat trick unacceptable.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at browns.ohio.com. Follow the Browns on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ABJ_Browns and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.