Inside the physical re-imagination of Steelers corner Joe Haden

Steelers cornerback Joe Haden's work with performance specialist Alex Skacel has the veteran feeling better than he has in years. Courtesy of sports performance specialist Alex Skacel

PITTSBURGH -- After two Pro Bowls and more than $70 million in career earnings and with a lengthy recovery from groin surgery ahead of him, Joe Haden had every reason to settle into his late 20s as an injury-riddled cornerback whose shutdown days were fading.

Haden hated the sound of that so much that he sought a secret weapon back in April: a 35-year-old sports performance specialist who now lives down the street from him and treats him almost every day.

Now he is preparing for his first playoff appearance, which might just catalyze a Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl run and shed durability concerns for good.

"Is he injury-prone? Is he getting old?" Haden said. "I'm feeling young and vibrant."

Haden credits his work with Alex Skacel of "rehab/perform/recover" for helping him reimagine his body. The two met after Haden, then a Cleveland Brown, had undergone surgery with Dr. William Meyers -- known as the league's groin guru -- in the Philadelphia area. Skacel worked for Meyers but hoped to start his own practice, so Haden said, "You know what, bro? Let's try this."

Skacel, 35, went to work with a full-body study of Haden, utilizing slow-motion videos with Dartfish software, neurological/balance exercises and muscle activation. He studied Haden's posture and noticed that his right knee dipped in a single-leg squat position due to weak outer hips. Four months later, the posture was upright, and the hip and knee were centered, leading to more fluid movement on the field.

The Steelers will take it. Haden is having a resurgent season as the team's top matchup corner.

"Joe decided he wanted to be back to his best, great at his position," Skacel said. "You get what you put in, and Joe bought in from the beginning. It was about getting him away from the weak movements because when you get injured, you change how you move, and it affects other parts of your body."

Even Joe's dad, who runs a weightlifting gym in Maryland, thinks his son looks "as fresh as I've ever seen him."

"He hasn't been this excited to play football since the Florida days," he said.

Haden planned to have Skacel with him in Cleveland full-time before the Browns released him on Aug. 30. When Haden signed a three-year, $27 million deal with Pittsburgh the next day, he wasn't sure how the franchise would react to his independent specialist potentially meeting with team training staff. The Tom Brady-Alex Guerrero situation in New England shows that these partnerships don't always go smoothly.

But the team has welcomed Skacel into its training room at least once a week to discuss progress. Haden and Skacel both agree that they've had better dialogue with the Steelers than with the Browns during the preseason.

"I work for the players, but I'm not here to contradict the team," Skacel said. "I'm here to help the team."

The Steelers must know that Haden arrives late to the stadium each Sunday by design. For 1 p.m. games, Skacel comes to Haden's living room -- or hotel room on the road -- for three hours of dry needling, cupping, glute activation exercises, stretching and soft tissue massages. Haden eats breakfast and watches game video on his iPad while getting his muscles relaxed before the big show.

"That's what pros do. You have to modify," said Haden, whose career earnings eclipse $82 million. "This is what makes my living. [Alex] is so smart at being able to tell me which body part triggers the other."

Haden's goal with all this was simple: Maintain speed and health. Haden was one of the league's top corners in 2014, but he hasn't played a full 16 games since his rookie year in 2010. Injuries mounted, including a crippling concussion in 2015 that limited him to five games.

Oddly, Haden's camp considers this year's broken fibula a win in the injury department because it wasn't a result of muscle weakness in one body part causing problems for another. The injury cost him five games, but it didn't slow his process. When Haden got hurt in Week 11 in Indianapolis, Skacel flew back on the team plane and treated Haden to cryotherapy that evening to minimize swelling.

A little more than a month later, Haden shadowed DeAndre Hopkins, who finished with 65 yards.

Haden knows his mental game has expanded enough to make him dangerous if his body continues to hold up, which is why Skacel is here: to help Haden fight his fears.

"Once you start getting a little older, you start getting slow, and once you lose a step and you can't stay on top, that's when it's time to move on to a safety or something different," Haden said. "So for me, my health and my long speed is what I need to do what I do -- because the concepts of football are getting easier and easier."