In an article published on Tuesday, ESPN Pittsburgh Steelers beat reporter Jeremy Fowler wrote about former Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Steven Nelson, who signed a three-year, $25.5 million free agent contract with the Steelers in mid-March.
As you might expect, the article has a get-to-know-a-new-Steelers-player vibe to it, going into Nelson’s background as a high school player in Georgia and the struggles he had playing for a junior college in California on his own dime before getting a scholarship to Oregon State.
But Nelson also talked in some detail about his time playing for the Chiefs, who drafted him in the third round (98th overall) of the 2015 NFL draft.
According to the article, Nelson said he felt support from inside the locker room, but with the team finishing 31st in yards allowed, fans felt differently. And to them, cornerbacks were an easy target.
“I kind of felt like I was shaded,” Nelson said about his time there. “I just felt like it was a slap in the face. A lot of people didn’t really know what was going on there. A lot of players took the heat.”
What was going on, Nelson said, was that corners were asked to play heavy man coverages, often in difficult spots. In 2018, the Chiefs ranked third in the NFL with 55.1 percent man coverage, behind the Denver Broncos (58.5 percent) and the New England Patriots (60.4 percent), according to NFL Next Gen Stats. The Steelers were fifth at 51.5 percent, but they traditionally have relied on zone coverages and often employ zone-man combinations, such as a “fire zone” defense. How an offense lines up can determine that coverage.
According to Fowler, Nelson said he was willing to accept the challenge of playing in man coverage but that some Chiefs players “had grown weary” of what they considered a predictable scheme that put too much pressure on the secondary.
”You’re a target to other teams, referees, fans. It’s just not a good thing,” Nelson said. “You have to switch it up. It’s the National Football League. These offenses are smart. If you switch it up like these other offenses are doing, you can make plays.”
After that experience, Nelson told Fowler he knew “a while back” that he wouldn’t re-sign with the Chiefs. But once signed with the Steelers, he made it a point to arrange a breakfast meeting with head coach Mike Tomlin during the NFL meetings in Phoenix.
Over fruit and omelets, Nelson wanted Tomlin to understand exactly what he was getting with his latest investment.
”I wanted to introduce myself formally, look a man in the eyes and give him a sense of satisfaction of the type of player I am, the type of person I am, more so off the field,”
Nelson is now slated to play outside cornerback for the Steelers. He’ll be across from former Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden, who signed with the team in 2017.