Though he played on the boundary in college, Steven Nelson first got on the field during his first few seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs lining up covering the slot. It wasn’t until his fourth season in 2018 that he was moved outside as a starter on a full-time basis, which is where the Pittsburgh Steelers played him last year in his first go-around with the team.
At 5’11” and 190 pounds, he’s certainly not the biggest cornerback to ever play the game. However, he’s also far from the smallest to line up regularly on the outside, either, even in an age when wide receivers seem to be getting bigger and bigger, with 6’4”, 220-pound bodies now fairly common at the position.
This didn’t phase Nelson last year, such as when he went up against D.K. Metcalf back in Week Two last season, a rookie who stands at 6’4” and weight 229 pounds. He kept the big receiver in check, even high-pointing one downfield pass to force a completion. For him, that’s just his game. He doesn’t care what others say about his size.
“I don’t think I’m that small. 5’11 and 190 pounds”, he told reporters earlier this week, speaking from training camp. “There are a lot of big receivers out there. When they see a 6’5” guy against a 5’11” cornerback, they’re going to try to feed that guy the ball. Having a lot of experience and film study, I do feel like I’m quicker than a lot of big guys and can pretty much beat them to a spot. With film study, that gives me an edge on that”.
In reality, the Steelers’ cornerback room isn’t the biggest overall. Their other starting cornerback, Joe Haden, is roughly the same height and weight as Nelson—and he went to the Pro Bowl last year, for the third time in his career. Cameron Sutton fits the same build. The exception is Justin Layne, who is 6’2”, as is the undrafted rookie James Pierre.
It is advantageous to be taller at the cornerback position when you are working against bigger and less agile targets. But having great change of direction is a better equalizer on a down-to-down basis, and knowing your opponent’s tendencies and how to respond to them in real time is the greatest tool of all, which comes from film study, not your natural assets.
The duo of Nelson and Haden put together one of the best cornerback showings that the team has seen within its defense in some time, and the Steelers are expecting more of the same from them this year. Nelson in particular is hoping to come down with a few more interceptions. And when he goes up for the ball, he won’t be thinking about being an inch shy of six feet.