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PITTSBURGH — After battling injuries over the past two offseasons, Joe Haden plans to make up for lost time.

The Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback said he took one week off after the regular season ended, and after morning beach workouts in Southern California, Haden is with his teammates for Phase One of voluntary workouts.

If the Steelers want to play more man coverage in 2018, which Haden suspects, the 29-year-old corner said he’s “good with it,” thanks to his clean injury slate.

“My groin’s good. My knee’s good. I’m feeling healthy,” Haden said. “I was able to get a full offseason workout. My last two offseasons I haven’t been able to train like I wanted to. This year, I got after training like I never have before.”
Joe Haden is ready to see what he can do with a full offseason with the Steelers. Mark Alberti/ Icon Sportswire
Haden underwent groin surgery in January 2017, which slowed his training for that upcoming season. The previous offseason, Haden was recovering from a concussion scare that cost him all but five games in 2015.

Haden’s injury history and hefty salary made him expendable for the Cleveland Browns, who released him in late August, but the Steelers quickly signed him to a three-year, $27-million, thrilled that a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback was available so late in the preseason.

Haden acquitted himself well in 11 games with 20 tackles and one interception as Pittsburgh’s lead corner alongside Artie Burns. Haden missed five games with a broken fibula, an injury that shouldn’t affect his long-term outlook with the team. The Steelers are carrying Haden’s $11.916 million salary-cap hit because of his importance to the defense.

Haden wants to see what he can do with a full offseason with the Steelers.

“[Before] it was just trying to get the plays and that stuff down,” said Haden about his limited offseason work. “Now, I can work on myself and my individual game and put it together. I was happy I could do it, being able to be healthy. It made me feel good working out in the mornings, get that work in, then having afternoons to myself.”

The Steelers should have a solid corner rotation with Haden, Burns, slot corner Mike Hilton, Cam Sutton and potentially a draft pick. Haden seems eager to take ownership of that group as he heads into his ninth NFL season.

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New Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Todd Haley addressed his hiring by saying that the 2017 Browns “obviously” played “a lot of close games.”

One could forgive the fans if they said it didn’t seem that way.

Such is life for a winless team whose record overcomes a final score.

The Browns finished with a point differential of minus-176, which means they lost by an average of 11 points. That was the worst in the league, by 34 points. They lost six games by six points or fewer, and Haley saw two when his former team, the Steelers, beat the Browns by three and four points, respectively.
DeShone Kizer and the Browns had close calls in both meetings against the Steelers in 2017. Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Were the Browns that close last season? Here’s a look at the games that were out of reach and those that weren’t:

Out of reach

At Baltimore (24-10), at Indianapolis (31-28), Cincinnati (31-7), at Houston (33-17), Minnesota in London (33-16), Jacksonville (19-7), Baltimore (27-10)

Average point differential: 15 points. The Colts score looks close, but that result was deceiving because the Browns were blown out in the first half. Jacksonville was a three-point game in the fourth quarter, but the offense never moved the ball consistently. In the rest, the other team was simply better.

With some luck, maybe

Pittsburgh (21-18), Tennessee (12-9 in overtime), at Los Angeles Chargers (19-10)

A play here or there would have changed momentum in each of these games, though the Browns would have had to create their own good fortune to finish each with a win.

Two plays made a big difference in the opener against Pittsburgh. Down three and trying to hold the Steelers without a first down for another chance in the final minutes, Antonio Brown somehow caught a fly ball from Ben Roethlisberger that descended as if it had a parachute. Brown leaped and made the catch between two Browns defenders. Previously, late in the third quarter, DeShone Kizer threw a pass that was intercepted by T.J. Watt at the Pittsburgh 17 — a pass basically thrown to nobody. Either of these plays could have changed the feel of the game, given the Browns a chance and helped Kizer’s early-season confidence. At times, the Steelers seemed to treat the game as more of a glorified scrimmage, but in the end the Browns had chances.

In the overtime loss to Tennessee, the Browns could not sustain enough drives and threw three interceptions. The score was close, but the Browns never threatened to take the win.

Philip Rivers threw for 344 yards and controlled the Chargers game, but in the first half, Kizer missed a wide-open Josh Gordon for what would have been an easy touchdown. Does that play change the result? Maybe not, but it could have changed the feel of the game.

Winnable with a play or a break

New York Jets (17-14), at Detroit (38-24), at Cincinnati (30-16), Green Bay (27-21 in overtime), at Chicago (20-3), at Pittsburgh (28-24)

Each of these games warrants a closer look.

A key play in the Jets loss came when coach Hue Jackson went for a first down on fourth-and-2 from the 4 early in the fourth quarter and the Browns down 10-7. A field goal would have tied the score, but Zane Gonzalez already had missed two and Jackson thought it was time to win the game, not tie. He was roundly criticized for it when the Browns didn’t make the first down. Naturally, the Jets followed with a 97-yard touchdown drive that essentially put the game away. Two other important plays earlier in the game also affected the outcome. Kizer threw a goal-line interception to snuff out a scoring threat when he misread the coverage. He also had a poor pitch on an option play at the goal line that led to a fumble inside the 10. If any one of those plays goes differently, the Browns have a chance to win. This game counts as one that got away.

In Detroit, a couple of missed chances affected the outcome of a two-touchdown game. The end of the first half was a lesson in clock mismanagement and ended when Kizer thought he saw an opening for a quarterback sneak on second-and-goal from the 2 with 19 seconds left and the Browns out of timeouts. The Lions stuffed the play, and the Browns got no points. Later, with Kizer sidelined with sore ribs, Cody Kessler overthrew a sure touchdown to a wide-open Bryce Treggs. Earlier, Seth DeValve’s fumble gave the Lions a defensive touchdown. The Browns actually led by seven late in the third quarter. They could have won this game.

One key play in Cincinnati still has the Browns banging their foreheads on their desks. The Bengals led by seven in the fourth quarter and faced third-and-5 from the Browns’ 40-yard line. Andy Dalton threw down the sideline to Josh Malone, who caught the ball just before receiving a hard tackle from safety Jabrill Peppers. Officials called it a hit on a defenseless player, and Peppers was flagged, which allowed the Bengals to score the clinching touchdown. The Browns were bitter about the flag, and their position seemed justified when the league rescinded a fine on Peppers. If that play goes the Browns’ way, Cleveland at least has a chance to tie.

The Packers loss remains toothache-style painful, especially because the Browns blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead. Any of three plays makes this a Browns win. First, David Njoku dropped a third-down pass with 2:59 left and the Browns up seven that would have meant a first down and an opportunity to run out the clock. On the ensuing punt, the Browns gave up a 65-yard return on a Keystone Cops effort that gave the Packers the chance to tie the score on the second-to-last play of the game.

That was the seventh-longest punt return in the NFL last season. In overtime, Kizer held the ball too long — Gordon could not get off the line for a quick slant — and was hit as he threw. The resulting pass turned into a pop fly that the Packers intercepted. They scored the game-winning touchdown soon after. This loss was a teeth-gnasher.
A 17-point loss in Chicago shouldn’t have had any meaningful plays for the Browns, but in this game one defensive play could have altered the outcome. On the first play of the second half, defensive end Myles Garrett returned an interception for a touchdown that would have put the Browns up 10-6. It was the kind of uplifting big play that energizes a team, but it turned out that Carl Nassib was flagged for offside, negating the interception and touchdown. It’s not inconceivable to think the Browns win if the play stands.

The season ended in Pittsburgh with a crushing mistake, as Corey Coleman dropped an easy catch at the Steelers’ 10-yard-line with 1:46 left. Kizer had played by far his best game, and he was guiding what appeared to be a last-minute, dramatic, game-winning drive. Instead, Coleman’s drop turned into a play that will live in Browns lore. The Browns had two turnovers on their previous drives on a Kizer interception and a Duke Johnson Jr. fumble, but the Coleman drop stands out as almost excessively cruel.

That adds up to six games when a play or three could have swung things for the Browns.

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Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis seemed to have an eye on the future before the 2017 season was even over. He said he told Teryl Austin to “stay in touch” prior to the Bengals’ game against the Detroit Lions on Christmas Eve.

Even though Lewis and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther had expiring contracts, Lewis seemed to be keeping an eye on Austin just in case. Now, Austin will take over Guenther’s duties as the Bengals’ defensive coordinator.

Austin ran a 4-3 base scheme in Detroit that had 32 takeaways last season, ranking third in the NFL. He promised to bring an aggressive style of play to Cincinnati.
New defensive coordinator Teryl Austin on joining the Bengals: “… When you have an opportunity to work with good people, good players, good teams, you have to take that chance.” AP Photo/John Minchillo
“We are going to try and play on their side of the line of scrimmage. We’re going to play without fear,” Austin said. “We’re going to play really physical and strong. I guess that’s what I mean by aggressive. We aren’t going to sit back and let somebody dictate what we do. That’s what I mean by aggressive. Aggressive is not fighting and talking and all that other stuff — it’s how you play the game. That’s what I want the people to see.”

Though the Bengals were able to force 28 turnovers in 2015, that production tailed off to just 14 in 2017. Austin said the Lions were so good at taking the ball away because he made it a point of emphasis.

“It’s like anything else in coaching: You get what you emphasize,” Austin said. “I know for a few years, our first year, we were really good. Then, we kind of fell back a year. We talked about it and tried to emphasize [takeaways]. This past offseason, I really dove into making sure we emphasized it more. We ran more takeaway drills, and we kept that going throughout the entire year. I think it paid off, because what our guys saw was tangible results early, and they kept building off of that. And that’s why I think we were able to get as many turnovers as we did this past year.”

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Though Austin will put his own touches on the defense, a sweeping change to a 3-4 style of defense doesn’t seem to be coming anytime soon. Lewis said he didn’t want the Bengals’ players to have to “relearn the wheel.”

“I thought it was important to have somebody that would stay within in our structure because of the personnel we have returning and that we didn’t have to make a drastic change,” Lewis said. “There are things that Teryl did the last few seasons in Detroit that are very compatible with what we do. He can shape [our defense] now with his hands, and with the rest of the coaches. Obviously when you take over a similar situation, as I did years ago from when I left Pittsburgh, you inherit some coaches, schemes and players. You have to adjust the coach a little bit, more so that the players don’t have to take too much of a sideways step, and we can keep pushing forward with their knowledge.”

 

Austin and Lewis conceded that his stay in Cincinnati wouldn’t be for long if everything worked out. Several of Lewis’ former coordinators and assistants, including Hue Jackson, Mike Zimmer, Jay Gruden and Vance Joseph, have gone on to become head coaches. Both hope the same thing for Austin, who has interviewed for several head-coaching positions over the years.

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“Obviously the big thing was his opportunity to possibly to become a head coach in the NFL,” Lewis said. “I was waiting for that to break, and I know that will occur in his future, and that’s the exciting thing. Hopefully we have great success immediately and he gets that opportunity.”

Said Austin: “The best selling point is that you have a chance to work with a quality person and a quality team. That’s the biggest selling point. At some point, you have to put all that other stuff [aside] — that other stuff will take care of itself. You can’t control that, so when you have an opportunity to work with good people, good players, good teams, you have to take that chance. That’s what I was looking for more than, ‘Hey, I have a chance to work with Marvin and possibly become a head coach.’ That’s not what I’m looking for. What I’m looking for is an opportunity to coach some men, get better, work with a good group of guys, and try to make them successful.”

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NEW ORLEANS — The Superdome is known for its noise level, and New Orleans Saints fans are known for their passion.

But the vibe — and the sheer volume — on Sunday was something this place hadn’t felt in a long, long time.

“I felt like, man, this was top-three loudest atmospheres,” quarterback Drew Brees said after the Saints’ 23-13, playoff-clinching victory over the Atlanta Falcons. “[The fans] deserved this one. This was all about them. They willed this to happen. So this was phenomenal.”

I’m not going to nitpick with Brees’ ranking or accuse him of hyperbole (even though I can think of at least two playoff wins and one Superdome reopener that should rank higher), because I can’t blame him if he forgot just how loud this place can get when the good times are really rolling.
The Superdome fans really got into the action Sunday, especially after Mark Ingram scored a touchdown to help the Saints pull away. Chuck Cook/USA TODAY Sports
This was definitely the most raucous atmosphere I can remember since at least 2011 — which was the last season when New Orleans won the NFC South and hosted a playoff game.

And now that everybody is back in sync again, it sure looks like the Saints (11-4) are primed to host another playoff game in two weeks. To do that, they’ll have to either win at Tampa Bay next Sunday or have the Carolina Panthers (11-4) lose at Atlanta.

“That was probably as loud as you’re gonna get here. I think maybe one time I’ve heard it louder than this — maybe,” said Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, who was a rookie in 2011 and who fed off that noise with two sacks on Sunday. “When you talk about the energy, we were able to feed off each other, feed off the fans. That’s a hell of a win.”

Credit Sunday’s opponent, first and foremost. The hated Falcons bring out the best in Saints fans when it comes to decibel levels — and this was one of the most meaningful games in the history of a rivalry that spans nearly 50 years, since both teams were in position to win the division entering Sunday.

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Credit also the Saints’ own playoff drought. They haven’t been to the postseason since 2013, so fans have been waiting a long time for something to get this excited for.

But most of all, credit the Saints themselves for living up to the hype.

As we’ve learned over the past three years of 7-9 seasons, crowds go quiet when the team doesn’t give the fans something to cheer for. But this time, the Saints gave them big moments throughout a convincing victory that really put an exclamation point on their breakout season.

“Listen, it all works together,” Brees said. “It all works hand in hand. You know those moments when the momentum in these games becomes so much bigger at home — the big play or the big stop on defense or the big hit. … You keep that crowd engaged, and you see the results. [The opponent] may jump offsides in a critical situation. It’s just remarkable how that can change a game.”

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The Saints had hit a bit of a lull over the past month, losing two of the past four games and playing sloppy in last week’s 31-19 home victory over the Jets.

But this was a strong performance filled with big moments from every unit — from cornerback Marshon Lattimore’s incredible “butt pick” interception that came to a rest on his backside before he secured it against his thigh; to Brees’ 54-yard TD pass to Ted Ginn Jr. three plays later; to a pair of goal-line stands by New Orleans’ defense in the second half; to Mark Ingram’s 26-yard TD run; to Alvin Kamara’s 49-yard kickoff return and more.
As I wrote Sunday, the Saints’ defense especially rose to the challenge — in a week in which they lost both starting linebacker A.J. Klein and starting safety Kenny Vaccaro to injured reserve. The revitalized young defense has been one of the stories of this season, and they proved just how legit they are against a dangerous offense led by Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and Matt Ryan.

This Saints team doesn’t feel like as much of a Super Bowl favorite or front-runner as those peak teams of 2009 and 2011 did. But it can win in a lot of ways with a defense and run game that are thriving even more than their downfield passing game.

And if Sunday’s game was an indication, the Saints sure look poised to peak at the right time.

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It has been over two years since T.J. Yates has thrown a touchdown pass in the NFL. The last time he did, Yates threw two touchdown passes to DeAndre Hopkins when the Texans faced the New York Jets on Nov. 22, 2015.

Some things never change.

Yates once again stepped up as a backup quarterback, something the veteran quarterback has done often for Houston since his 2011 NFL debut. During Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers, Tom Savage left the game with a concussion and Yates took over with 2:32 left in the second quarter.

On his first series, Yates was 4-of-6 for 54 yards, adding a 15-yard scramble for a first down. Hopkins had a catch-and-run for a 25-yard gain deep in San Francisco territory. On the next play, Yates found Hopkins for a 7-yard touchdown pass to cap off the nine-play, 75-yard drive.

“Obviously, getting into the game that’s the guy I am going to be looking for,” Yates said. “That’s a guy I’ve been throwing to before in my career. I’ve worked with him before so I have a good rapport with him. It’s a good idea to get him the ball as much as possible. That was the main focus just trying to get me comfortable and just get me going by trying to find him.”

On the Texans opening drive of the second half, Yates connected with Hopkins on a 29-yard touchdown pass to give Houston a 16-13 lead in the third quarter. Despite orchestrating scoring drives on his first two offensive series, Yates was unable to maintain his early success with Hopkins as the Texans fell 26-16 to San Francisco.

“Obviously, they started to take DeAndre away as much as possible,” Yates said. “We got back to making those mistakes that were killing us whether it was passes dropped, turnovers, stuff just kind of not going our way. We’ve got to do a better job of keeping that momentum we had at the end of the first half and beginning of the second half just to keep it rolling.”

Yates completed 14-of-26 passes (53.8%) for 175 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 100.6 passer rating. He also ran for 31 yards on three carries (10.3 avg.).

With the loss, the Texans fall to 4-9 on the season and will next face the Jacksonville Jaguars on the road in Week 15.

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart took the pitch left on Thursday night and was immediately greeted by Philadelphia safety Malcolm Jenkins 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage.

Stewart escaped that tackle, but then he faced three other defenders running clean through the line. He ultimately found himself under a pile of six Eagles, with not a blocker within arm’s length.

Afterward, Stewart appeared frustrated as he stood and stared at coaches on the sideline.

“No more than anybody else would be,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said Friday before the Panthers (4-2) began a three-day break. “The biggest thing is we’ve got to not have the negative runs, the runs for losses. We want to make sure we take care of that.”

The Panthers had six negative runs, including three by Stewart, against the Eagles. This came a week after they had nine (eight by Stewart) against Detroit.

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“We flat-out missed some blocks,” coach Ron Rivera said.

This wasn’t what Rivera envisioned after a preseason loss at Tennessee when he was more impressed with a 4-yard run by Stewart than a 38-yard catch and run by rookie running back Christian McCaffrey.

He made it clear that was what he wanted the offense to be about.

“It was a very physical-natured play,” Rivera said. “The offensive line fired off, got the good surge, Jonathan gets a crease and picked up 4 good yards. That’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for that physical, tough running presence that Jonathan gives.”
Jonathan Stewart has only 17 yards on 26 carries in the past two games, including minus-4 yards on eight carries against the Eagles on Thursday. Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY Sports
The Panthers have been anything but that the past two games against Detroit and Philadelphia. Running backs have averaged less than a yard per carry (29 on 34 attempts) in those games. They had 1 yard on 13 attempts in Thursday night’s 28-23 loss to the Eagles. Without quarterback Cam Newton during this span, the running game would be almost non-existent. He had 71 of the team’s 108 total yards in those two games. (The Panthers had just 80 total yards against Detroit and 28 against Philadelphia.)

The last time the Panthers had consecutive performances with less than 100 yards rushing was the ninth and 10th games last season, when they ran for 99 yards against Kansas City, followed by 50 against New Orleans.

The latest two-game total of 108 yards is the team’s lowest since the second and third games of the 2014 season, when Carolina had 62 yards against Detroit and 42 against Pittsburgh for a combined 104.

Two weeks later, the Panthers went on a run of 35 straight games — including five playoff games — with at least 100 yards.

They topped that mark in all 19 games during the 2015 season, including the loss to Denver in Super Bowl 50.

“We’ve got to be better across the board,” Shula said. “We’ve got good run-blockers, we’ve got good schemes. That’s never been an issue and I don’t see that being an issue.

“But we want to make sure we get that back in good balance for sure.”

If Stewart is frustrated, you can’t blame him. He’s averaging 41.2 yards rushing and 2.9 yards per carry. He has only 17 yards on 26 carries in the past two games, including minus-4 yards on eight carries against the Eagles.

Stewart has a career average of 4.3 yards per carry.

The Panthers don’t believe the issue is Stewart, who at 30 is at an age when the production of running backs typically falls off.

But they do have an issue with the negative plays. It figured into a decision to pass on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 with just under a minute left from the Philadelphia 48.

Both were incomplete. One was tipped with tight end Ed Dickson wide open, and the other was just off target to McCaffrey, who had room to run because a defender jumped up and threw Newton’s timing off.

“I know it’s a game of inches, but that one was literally inches away from being a big play for us,” Rivera said.

Inches are what the Carolina backs are getting in the running game. Correcting that will be a focus when players begin preparing for Chicago on Tuesday.
Entering Sunday’s games, the Chicago Bears’ defense ranked 13th against the run, allowing 100.2 yards a game.

The Panthers entered Sunday’s games ranked 20th in the league with 95.5 yards rushing a game. They haven’t finished a season with less than 100 yards a game since 2004, when they averaged 98.6 yards.

They’ve finished in the top 10 in rushing five of the past seven seasons, including second (142.6 ypg.) in 2015 en route to an NFL-best 15-1 record.

“It’s that little difference between making your block and not making your block,” left tackle Matt Kalil said. “It’s as simple as that. For us, just going back to the basics and being more fundamentally sound.

“I have no doubt that we’ll fix that and get that going.”