If Torrey Smith has his way, there will be at least a few yards separating him and Joe Haden on Sunday.
But away from the football field, Smith and the Cleveland Browns cornerback remain tight after growing up in neighboring communities in Virginia. Haden moved back to Maryland in middle school, but they kept in touch throughout high school and when Smith attended college at Maryland and Haden headed south to Florida.
Their families are close, too. Haden’s grandfather, whom Smith says is a pastor at a church down in Virginia, spoke at the funeral for Smith’s young brother, Tevin, who died in a motorcycle crash in September.
“We have a great relationship with his family. Where I come from is real country. Everyone knows everyone. Everyone down in Virginia is following him," Smith said. "You’ve got to love what he does.”
The second-year wide receiver might not love it so much Sunday.
Haden is one of the NFL’s most promising young cornerbacks, and his return from a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs coincides with the recent resurgence of a solid Cleveland defense that was quietly among the league’s best a season ago, finishing fifth in points allowed.
Haden, who missed the Week 4 matchup between the Ravens and Browns, has played the past three games, and the Browns allowed 15.7 points per game while going 2-1. The Cleveland defense allowed 64 points in the four games with Haden in the lineup -- his suspension began in Week 2 -- and 108 in the four without him.
“He changes [Cleveland’s defense] a lot,” said Smith, who had six catches for 97 yards and a touchdown in a 23-16 win in Week 4. “He’s one of the best young corners in the league. He definitely has been a difference in their defensive play since he’s been in there.”
The Browns rank 25th in pass defense, but they are allowing 41 fewer yards per game through the air with him in the lineup. They allowed 10 touchdowns without him and just five without him. They picked off seven passes in four games with him -- Haden had two of them -- and three without him. He can be a game-changer.
Smith said that Haden friend can be a gambler at times, keeping his eyes on the quarterback and waiting to jump routes. But he has “great makeup speed” to recover if he lets his man slip behind him.
Haden showed off his athleticism at Smith’s charity basketball game this summer, throwing down dunks and exchanging alley oops with Ravens backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor. On Friday, Smith and Taylor spent nearly two minutes trying to remember who Haden assisted on the game-winning shot before running back Anthony Allen eventually chimed in and said that Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus was the player that Haden had set up for an easy basket.
“It was a classic ending. We ended up beating the [Washington Redskins] team. It was fun,” Smith said.
Sunday, Smith and Haden will be on opposite sidelines again. Smith knows it will be a challenge to shake free of his childhood friend, but he said that he and all those “real country” folks in Virginia are looking forward to it.
“At the end of the day, it’s still a game, but it’s fun. You get to see each other before the game. Obviously, you battle during the game,” Smith said. “And after the game, you have something to talk about. For us, everybody back home will be watching, so it will be fun. It’s good for everyone, especially in the community.”