There are so many things that are providing key differences for the Pittsburgh Steelers this season that they may not have had in recent years. I could make a strong argument that there is no single bigger factor in the team’s—really, the defense’s—success this year than the high level of play that they have gotten from their veteran, free agent cornerbacks.
The talk of the day will be reserved, of course, for Joe Haden, who recorded his first multi-interception came as a Steeler and now has four on the season, including three in the past two weeks. He has recorded an interception on the last defensive play of each of the past two games in one-score contests.
But while Steven Nelson hasn’t had the ‘splash’ yet—no interceptions, no forced fumbles—the 2019 free agent signing has been, unquestionably, a big deal for this unit, providing consistently quality coverage that has seen quarterbacks often shy toward thrown in his direction. And this is just one season removed from being one of the most frequently targeted in the league while with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Head coach Mike Tomlin reserved some praise for this veteran duo following tonight’s game, a key win over the Arizona Cardinals that continues to strengthen their bid for a postseason berth. While the division is very nearly out of reach now—the Baltimore Ravens’ ‘magic number’ is down to one—they are in prime position to qualify as a wildcard.
On Haden, Tomlin said, “he’s just a quality low-maintenance, high-production, veteran player”. But he wouldn’t go without mentioning Nelson. “Obviously, Joe made the splash today, so he deserve the recognition, but I can’t say enough about both of those [guys]. Low-maintenance, high-production veteran corners that provide a nice, high floor for us in terms of performance”.
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) December 9, 2019
They didn’t have this a year ago. While Haden was here, opposite him for most of the season was Coty Sensabaugh, after Artie Burns was benched. And Haden is also having his best season with the Steelers, probably his best season in the past half-decade and beyond.
Nelson hasn’t been turning the ball over, but we saw last season that he is capable, taking the ball away four times. Now Haden’s done that. Another acquisition, via trade, Minkah Fitzpatrick, has recorded five interceptions, so they’ve done well adding talent in the secondary outside of the draft.
With the coverage abilities of this veteran safety tandem, the front seven has had more time than in about the past decade to get after the quarterback, which sees them maintaining a pace to break their own franchise sack record in 2019. That’s as much a testament to the likes of Haden and Nelson as it is to T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, and Cameron Heyward.