Arguably the most underrated move the Pittsburgh Steelers made all year was the signing of cornerback Steven Nelson in free agency, and that fact alone is sort of amazing in and of itself. Never before had the team ever given an unrestricted more money, either per season or in total, than they did to Nelson, nor had they ever before agreed to terms in principle with an outside free agent on a deal prior to the official start of the new league year.
Nelson was given $25.5 million over three years after four seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs—who admittedly will now be participating in the Super Bowl without him. Be that as it may, there can be no denying that he was a huge part of making the Steelers’ defense as good as it was in 2019.
While he did not get any awards recognition for it, others noticed. Adam Rank, for example, of NFL.com. he chose the fifth-year cornerback as his selection for the Steelers’ ‘unsung hero’ for the 2019 season, and I think it’s the appropriate choice, by all means. He writes:
The Steelers had so many injuries on offense this season — including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which forced the team to play two quarterbacks who weren’t ready. Unfortunately, all of those setbacks overshadowed a great effort by Pittsburgh’s defense. The Steelers’ secondary started to become the strength of the team after they traded for Minkah Fitzpatrick. But another key move was made during the offseason when they brought in Nelson. He formed a pretty formidable tandem with Joe Haden, and it looks like this will be the foundation for the Steelers to build around heading into next season.
The Steelers got a nice boost from their pass rush in 2019, with T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree combining to produce 26 sacks, the second-most by a pair of defenders in a single season in team history behind only James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley registering 27.5 sacks in 2008.
But the coverage of Nelson and Joe Haden also had a lot to do with buying them extra time to get there. They say rush and coverage go hand in hand, and certainly they do, but the change in coverage was the bigger variable from this past season to the year before than the pass-rushing tandem.
Nelson didn’t put up huge numbers as a defender, but opposing defenses also did not frequently target him. He only finished the season with one interception, but the team knows that he is capable of delivering more, if given more opportunities. He intercepted four passes the year before. In contrast, however, he also did not give up a touchdown in 2019.