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Joe Haden gets what he was looking for with Steelers: Playoffs

December 25, 2017 GMT

As a reward for winning the AFC North title, each Steelers player received an envelope last week containing $200 courtesy of team president Art Rooney II.

It’s a gesture some long-time Steelers can take for granted. The Steelers have received the bonus three times in the past four years and four times since 2010.

For newcomers, such as cornerback Joe Haden, the gift can lead to some good-natured ribbing from teammates.

“Ben (Roethlisberger) was messing with him today,” safety Mike Mitchell said Thursday. “He said, ‘Joe, I bet this is the first time you’ve ever gotten money for winning a division title.’ ”

Indeed, it was. Not only had Haden never sniffed a division championship in seven seasons with the Cleveland Browns, he never played for a team with a winning record.

Which is why Haden jumped at the chance to sign with the Steelers in late August just hours after being released by the Browns. He wanted to play meaningful games in December with a chance for his season to extend deep into January and perhaps even February.

“That’s exactly what I was looking for,” Haden said. “I wanted to play in big-time games where everybody wants to know what is going on with us. Games that involve big-time playoff position. The games that mean a lot in December.”

Haden, who hasn’t played since Nov. 12 because of a fractured fibula, was hoping to return last Sunday against the New England Patriots in the most anticipated game of the regular season. But he is expected to be back in the lineup Monday when the Steelers play at the Houston Texans.

With an 11-3 record, the Steelers need wins over Houston and Cleveland to earn a first-round bye, and they still have an outside chance of securing home-field advantage in the playoffs.

“Just playing with these dudes, being on this team, it gives me a whole different understanding and perspective of playing ball and what it’s really all about,” Haden said. “This is my first time in the playoffs, so I’m super, super excited about it. A lot of teams are about packing up ready to go home, and we’ve got a lot of ball left.”

One of those teams, of course, is the Browns, who entered Sunday sporting an 0-14 record.

The only previous time Haden played a game of late-season importance was 2014, his fifth season with Cleveland. The Browns were 7-4 in November but lost their final five games to ruin any chance of a winning season.

That season aside, Haden never played for a team that finished better than 5-11. The Browns were 1-15 in his final season in Cleveland.

“We had early discussions,” Mitchell said about Haden’s change of scenery. “Joe is a Steeler now, so it’s not something I really think about anymore. It’s something we joked about early. We won the first game, and he said it was the first time in eight years that he had started 1-0.”

Although he was disappointed he couldn’t return in time to play against the Patriots, Haden said he is thankful he has two games to prepare for what awaits the Steelers in January.

“I’m glad I was able to work back knowing we have a postseason,” he said. “I can get in football shape. It will be good to get back out there and make some plays.”

Coty Sensabaugh started the first four games in Haden’s absence. Rookie third-round draft pick Cam Sutton surpassed Sensabaugh on the depth chart and started against the Patriots. Haden’s return means everybody in the secondary is healthy.

“Right now, this is when football really matters,” cornerback Artie Burns said. “What happened before doesn’t matter. This is the end of the season. If all hands are on deck, it’s better for us.”

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler thinks it is important for Haden to get on the field before the Steelers play in January.

“I don’t like for guys to miss a lot of time before playoffs and stuff like that because I think you lose your edge if you do miss some time,” Butler said.

And what does Haden think about the Steelers’ future once they get to the postseason?

“I love our chances,” he said. “I’m really, really excited just to have the opportunity to go into every game with this offense and our defense. Our talent level is up there with anybody. I don’t feel like anybody can out-talent us. We just have to be able to go out there and execute and make our plays.”

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jrutter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.