Nelson Island: The Best Kept Secret of the Steelers Defense

By Zach Herbaugh

When the 2018 offseason started, cornerback was a glaring need for the Pittsburgh Steelers. 2016 first-round draft pick Artie Burns did not turn out to be the NFL starting cornerback they had envisioned. The Steelers were now in the market to sign a complimentary corner to line up on the other side of Joe Haden. So when Steven Nelson decided to enter free agency, the Steelers jumped at the opportunity to sign him. They ended up reaching a deal that made Nelson the highest-paid outside unrestricted free agent signing in Steelers history.

Nelson, a third-round pick in the 2015 NFL draft, started his career in Kansas City as a back-up. He worked his way into the starting lineup by the start of his second season and consistently improved each year. During his fourth season in Kansas City, Nelson collected 68 tackles, 4 interceptions, and 15 pass deflections.

Kansas City had one of the league’s worst defenses in 2018 and ended up losing in the AFC championship game to the eventual Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. Nelson was forced to match up against the opposing top receiver each week and played behind a defensive line that struggled to apply consistent pressure. Nelson’s potential was not being maximized in Kansas City. Poor defensive schemes coupled with inferior coaching resulted in Nelson deciding to continue his career elsewhere.

During the 2019 preseason, the buzz around Nelson started to increase. Teammates praised Nelson for how quickly he was catching on to the defense, his production every day in practice, and his constant challenging of teammates to improve. It seemed that Nelson had finally found a fit in Pittsburgh.

When the 2019 season started, Nelson started to cement himself as one of the best corners in football.  When members of the national media discuss top defensive backs in the NFL, Nelson’s name is very rarely brought up. However, when you look at his statistics against the 2019 All-Pro corners, it’s hard to ignore how productive his last season in Pittsburgh was.

Stephon Gilmore: 50.5% completion percentage against, 599 yards allowed, 44.1 passer rating allowed

Marlon Humphrey: 58% completion percentage against, 440 yards allowed, 68.5 passer rating allowed

Steven Nelson: 50% completion percentage against, 491 yards allowed, 65.8 passer rating allowed

Marcus Peters: 55.6% completion percentage against, 597 yards allowed, 71.4 passer rating allowed 

Nelson, who played in 15 of 16 games for the Steelers, was the sixth-highest rated cornerback in the NFL in 2019 according to Pro Football Focus. Nelson played almost every defensive snap in 2019, finishing third on the team with 1,011 defensive plays. Nelson was one of only ten defensive backs in the entire NFL who played over 1,000 snaps last year.

In the 1,011 snaps that Nelson played last year, he was only targeted a total of 74 times. This was a significant decrease from 115 in 2018 with the Chiefs as defenses started to understand how good Nelson was. Of those 74 targets, only 37 were completed putting him 11th in the NFL with a 50% completion percentage against which was far superior to All-Pro selections Humphrey and Peters. Nelson also did not allow a single touchdown in all of 2019 and allowed a passer rating of just 65.8 with was good enough for top 10 in the NFL and better than Humphrey and Peters again. He also posted a forced incompletion rate of 15.2% which was tied with Haden for 20th in the NFL.

It is finally time for Nelson to get the respect that he deserves. He has consistently improved every year he has played in the NFL and he is still being slept on by the national media. Nelson has transformed his game and become one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. An obvious Pro Bowl snub in 2019, Nelson is poised to have a spectacular 2020 season that will most certainly award him with his first Pro Bowl and likely in talks for his first All-Pro selection.

Where do you rank Steven Nelson among other top corners in the league? How much better do you think the Steelers defense will be in 2020? Let us know and comment below!


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