While Minkah Fitzpatrick has been getting the bulk of the attention in the secondary, one should not overlook the impact that free agent signing Steven Nelson has had since signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers in March. Inked to a three-year, $25.5 million deal, the team invested big—by their standards—to address a position that had been a need for years, and to see it actually paying off still feels like something of a surprise.
While he has yet to record an interception—“for me, it seems like I always have to work a little harder” to get them, he told Brian Batko of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette—his consistently sound play in coverage has been a stabilizing force in a secondary that had been searching for just that for years.
The Steelers as a defense are not exactly setting any records in terms of their pass defense, though they are coming off a strong performance against Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Miami Dolphins, whom they held to under 200 yards passing and without an explosive play.
They are, however, getting the job done in the secondary more often than not, and one can certainly argue that Nelson has been the more consistent cornerback in the secondary over Joe Haden, now in his third season with the team. Haden had his troubles with Dolphins rookie Preston Williams on Monday.
Nelson’s best game of the season is probably still the one back in Week Two against the Seattle Seahawks, much of which he spent working against rookie D.K. Metcalf, who was held in check whenever he was in coverage, notching a couple of passes defensed along the way.
Said Mike Tomlin of his starting cornerback earlier this week, “the performances that we get from him week in and week out are really consistent”, he added, “he does a good job of staying close to his guy, to be quite honest with you, so he’s not targeted a lot. All those things bode well for him and for us, and we like the overall trajectory of his play”.
It doesn’t hurt that the Steelers’ pass rush has remained effective, so quarterbacks haven’t always had a very long time to throw the ball around this season, a fact that can’t be ignored. They are once again on-pace to record a 50-sack season for the third year in a row. Prior to 2017 and 2018, they had never recorded 50 or more sacks in back-to-back seasons, and are now trending toward doing it three years in a row.
Rush and coverage, though, also go hand-in-hand, and the play of Nelson and Haden—and the rest—being able to play in man and cut off quick throwing lanes have bought the pass rush more time to get home.