Welcome your newest member of the Pittsburgh Steelers – cornerback Steven Nelson. He may not have been the top guy, or even the team’s own top guy, offering Bradley Roby a three-year deal before he landed on Houston, but it’s the “splash” signing all of us were hoping for. The $8.3 million per year Nelson will make is by far the biggest deal the Steelers have ever handed out to a free agent, surpassing Mike Mitchell and Ladarius Green, each earning $5 million per year.
So who is Nelson? Is he worth the money? How will he make the defense better? Let’s look at the good, bad, and ugly of his game.
Coverage (The Good)
Here’s what Nelson brings to this defense that’s been lacking in the secondary: ball skills and hands. Make no mistake, they’re two different skillsets. Bill Belichick defines the difference as ball skills being able to break passes up while hands are the literal ability to catch the football. The latter was a real problem for the Steelers’ secondary in 2018, leading the NFL in dropped interceptions with at least 13.
Nelson’s physicality, ability to close on the football, and technique and tenacity at the catch point is impressive. Given an opportunity to start and play on the outside in 2018, he picked off four passes and according to Pro Football Reference, broke up 15 passes. And it litters his tape.
This is one of my favorite plays of his. And it could’ve – should’ve – been a negative. He loses the receiver at the top of the route, stumbling downfield, and it should be an easy score for Brandin Cooks. But he works hard to get back in-phase, to the inside hip of the receiver and here, knows he can’t get eyes on the football. He’s trailing, the ball is about to arrive, he can’t look back or else he won’t make up the space in time. Let the receiver’s mannerisms tell you when the ball will be there. He plays the pocket of the receiver, chopping down through the hands and knocking the football out. Turns what should’ve been a touchdown into an incompletion.
Going through Steven Nelson's breakups. Love his effort here. Was late to open his hips, got beat, stumbled, but never gave up. Got back in-phase, showed technique + strength to play catch point, create the incompletion. #Steelers pic.twitter.com/GNZJG7ohhZ
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) March 13, 2019
You see his ability to close on crossing routes even with initial outside leverage, where it’d be easy to give those type of concepts up. He didn’t break up every pass on these breaking routes, had some trouble against Doug Baldwin, but he’s capable of making these plays despite not being a great athlete.
And I like the fight in his game. He’ll take on bigger receivers despite his 5’10 frame. Watch him high point and rip this ball out from Tyrell Williams and in the second clip, break up this two-point, red zone fade against Mike Williams.
There were times where he was bodied or boxed out but he’s a high effort player who times his jumps well.
And I posted the cut-up of the four interceptions, the only of his NFL career, yesterday in the initial signing post. Here they are again.
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) March 12, 2019
None were spectacular plays but you see his ability to be opportunistic and finish plays. That’s rush and cover going to together. Take advantage of pressure and tipped passes. Consider this stat.
Steven Nelson: 4
Steelers Cornerbacks: 4
Yup, Nelson matched the entire cornerback’s total. Colbert said this defense needed to add playmakers. Nelson might not be that top guy but he can create some big plays.
Coverage (The Bad)
Two of the biggest knocks on him? Not an elite athlete, a lack of tightness and his hips and only above average long speed, and an overaggressive attitude. Both create problems. In a press-man alignment, too often he offers a free release off the line of scrimmage, preserving the timing of the route that’s critical for the QB/WR.
Nelson can struggle at the top of vertical routes, trying to initiate too much contact and against bigger receivers, getting bumped off.
Or he’ll guess on routes and releases, causing him to get beat and without elite athleticism, he can give up the deep ball. Also has problems getting his hips open in time, again, a little tightness in his transition from a press-man alignment, and that can cause problems versus receivers with good speed.
In the tape I watched, a collection of around 200 plays, he gave up a 42 yard completion to Courtland Sutton, a 38 yard completion to Antonio Callaway, and somehow beat by running back Austin Ekeler – a good receiver but still – for a 30 yard gain versus Los Angeles in Week One. He is the right corner in all these clips.
That doesn’t even take into account his penalties. He was flagged nine times last year as a Chief, tied for the fourth most by any DB in football. His four pass interference penalties also ranked near the top of the league. There are times where he’s in good position but still gets grabby, a habit of him looking back for the football, getting out of position, and running into the receiver as a result. Both of these plays were called for PI.
Nelson is a “want to” player. And that’s how he was tabbed coming out of OSU. He’s physical with good hit power and a desire to make an impact. Not afraid to take on a running back one-on-one and make the tackle, even if that means sacrificing his own body. Look at him take on Doug Martin here. No fear.
His run fits are sound too. He sets the edge and turns runs back inside.
Technique-wise, he’s a little shaky. Again, aggressive and generally wants to make the play but has a tendency to wrestle backs down as opposed to coming to balance, driving, and wrapping up. Plays like this. You can tell he’s trying to throw Melvin Gordon down but whiffs pretty badly. You’re not going to “catch” a 220 pound running back like that.
Ultimately though, I don’t see him as a liability.
Nelson was used almost exclusively at right cornerback before in 2018 after seeing a lot of work in the slot previously. A few snaps back in the slot last year but only in 3×1 sets with the tight end isolated backside. The ability to play both is nice but I assume he’s going to be the outside, right corner opposite Joe Haden.
A lot of his work came in man coverage. The Chiefs mixed up coverages, Bob Sutton was a good defensive coordinator who threw plenty of looks at offenses, but I saw plenty of man coverage. Which is good because the Steelers made the switch to a man-heavy scheme, running it the third most of any defense last year.
He often employed a “bail technique” that shows press-man pre-snap with off coverage right before the play began, opening his hips to the field and reading the receiver and the eyes of the QB. In off man, he shows some inconsistency with his read on the ball. Here, he anticipates Josh Rosen’s throw, drives, and breaks the ball up on this curl. Nice rep.
But here, he’s late driving on it and allows an easy completion. More trouble transitioning in his bail technique than the straight pedal in the previous clip.
In zone, I saw some Cover 2 and a little bit of Cover 3 but not much notable in terms of his ability to play it.
Didn’t see him blitz once in the tape I saw but I’d have to check out more from seasons prior to 2018 when he played more slot. Obviously, the nickel corner gets more blitz work than the outside.
Here is my final report on Nelson. We’ll talk about more in-depth how he specifically fits into the scheme a little later on.
– Plus ball skills and hands, able to play the catch point, shows strong hands, and can recover when beat at the line of scrimmage
– Opportunistic player who finishes chances and makes tough, diving catches
– Does not have elite athleticism but impressive closing speed while maintaining technique, notably on crossing/breaking routes
– Tenacity in coverage, willing to take on bigger receivers, times his jumps and combative on all throws, even when he is outsized
– Willing tackler who can deliver a blow, good run fits and able to properly fill in crack/replace situations , feisty player who will sacrifice his body
– Showed versatility in college, inside/out ability though likely ticketed for RCB work in Pittsbugh
– Experience in press and off man, no scheme is foreign to him
– Good but not great/elite athleticism and can struggle against speedy receivers, shows some tightness in his hips
– Allows too many free releases in press man coverage
– Too aggressive and physical in the route, will lose at the top and allow space near the catch point
– Causes him to draw too many flags, must play cleaner
– Tackling technique is inconsistent and can cause him to miss, especially against running backs
– Instincts are questionable and susceptible to misreading the release/route of the receiver, will take chances and can get burned
Realistically, Nelson is not a #1, shutdown corner. He’s not “the guy.” And I know that sorta sucks because of how much he’s getting paid but that’s just how the market works. I see it less of an overpay and more the cost of doing business.
I like Bradley Roby a lot. He was my #1 guy and evidently, the team’s too. Nelson is similar in some ways, his feast/famine tape, but isn’t as fast or twitchy as Roby is. It’s a good signing and is step one in fixing one of this defense’s largest problems, the ability to create splash and turnovers. And I’m certainly thrilled about that and the fact the team finally made an aggressive move. They couldn’t have gone through the offseason without one and expected to plug all the holes they have.