The darkest days in Joe Haden's life lit his path to prominence.
Suspended last year for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy, Cleveland's lock-down cornerback took a hard look at himself and knew he had to make changes. It was time to grow up. Get serious.
"When I got suspended that really slowed me down and made me settle down," Haden said. "The whole suspension thing got me to where I am now."
Haden has moved into the elite class of NFL defensive backs. Coming off the best game of his career — two interceptions, one for a touchdown return against Cincinnati — Haden credited much of his personal turnaround with a dramatic lifestyle change, most notably his marriage last June to longtime girlfriend, Sarah.
"I think it's mostly, honestly, the way I'm living," said the affable Haden. "Just me and 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, and honestly that's what really got me here.
"It's just football now, all football."
And Haden is playing it better than ever.
On Sunday, he clamped down on Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green for the second time this season, holding him to just two catches for 7 yards. Week after week, Haden covers the other team's top receiver and he's done his job almost flawlessly.
So far this season, he's matched up with six former Pro Bowl receivers and has limited the group, which includes Green, Detroit's Calvin Johnson and Miami's Mike Wallace, to 17 receptions for 147 yards and zero touchdowns.
With a laminated map of the Hawaiian Islands taped to the inside of his locker to give him motivation to make the Pro Bowl, he has become Haden Island.
"He embodies everything you want in a young corner," said Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton. "He's athletic, he's smart, he's tough, and he's a very good person on top of that."
Haden's maturity as a person and player has been noticeable to teammates as well as to teams preparing to face him.
Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be mindful of No. 23 when the Steelers (4-6) visit the Browns (4-6) on Sunday in a game that could knock the loser from the playoff race.
"He's a guy right now that's playing at a really high level," Roethlisberger said on a conference call. "He may be playing the best of any cornerback that we've seen all year."
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin spoke in glowing terms about Haden, who burst onto the scene with six interceptions as a rookie in 2010.
"I don't believe any corner is playing better that we have faced," 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. And the end result is he's one of the best at what he does."
It's not that Haden was acting like a wild man before this season. He liked to have fun and his accessibility, good-natured attitude and genuine love for Cleveland endeared him to Browns fans.
But his four-game suspension for using Adderall last year changed the way some people viewed him.
Haden sat out Weeks 2-5, and the Browns went 0-4 without their best defensive player. Unable to be around his teammates during the suspension, he went home to Maryland and stayed with his parents.
As tough as that time was on him emotionally, the break gave him a chance to prioritize. He prayed. He came back determined to be a better man, a better player. Once he got engaged everything fell into place.
"I just knew it was about time, he said. "It was the right girl, good girl, perfect. Just amazing.
"Honestly, just the way of life changed me. That's the truth."
Haden said Horton has made a huge impact on his on-field growth. Horton has been demanding, pushing Haden to raise his game. One of Horton's tools to goad Haden has been to compare him with Arizona cornerback Patrick Peterson. Horton coached Peterson for two seasons.
"He's definitely different than any coach I have ever had," Haden said. "He does not really talk too much to me, he just always says little smart remarks about not doing what I should or if I am doing good, he will give me little comments.
"He mostly just lets me do me."
Haden is doing it better than ever.
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